Here we are again. Watching these same images of terror, this time from Paris and Beirut.
Every now and then, in the course of our lives, something so terrible happens that the entire world seems to stop and gasp. How can humans hate so much as to do things like this? In these times our non-Christian friends may turn to us and ask how we can believe in a God that would allow that to happen. We can also admit that we sometimes ask ourselves the same question.
And the answer isn’t easy, is it? One thing we often hear in response to bad situations like this or to a personal tragedy in our own lives is “God has a plan.” The implication being that part of the plan involved this terrible event. But I don’t find this helpful. I do believe that God has a plan. But the plan is to bring us through the dark times, not into them.
When my mother died, well-meaning, loving people who were desperate to bring me comfort told me that it was all part of God’s plan. But that wasn’t any help to me. I just wanted my mom. I understood what they were trying to tell me, and the pain they felt for me, but in trying to make a little order out of the chaos of the world, they were painting a picture of God that I just don’t think is accurate. God didn’t make my mother sick.
In situations like we are facing this weekend, we are experiencing feelings of loss and fear globally. We are all looking for answers. How is there any hope for humanity if we treat each other like this? Where is God? There is no comfort in the idea of a divine plan that involves this kind of suffering. Something inside of all of us, whether we are part of the church or not, tells us is that THIS IS NOT HOW GOD WORKS.
I think we’re right.
We have all seen the footage of people all over the world reacting to the tragedy this weekend. Hosea is the news footage that shows us God’s reaction. And God doesn’t say, “Just sit tight; it’s all part of the plan.” God is devastated for us. It’s like God is saying “Oh, my little ones. What are you DOING to each other?“ We’re not being tested, we’re not being punished, or any of those other things we sometimes hear about God when these things happen.
And this was in no way God’s will for us.
God doesn’t work like that. It isn’t God’s nature. In this moment, God is here and is hurting too. And just like we are, God is angry. There is a better way! The world shouldn’t be like this! God has brought us through wars and genocide and all the other awful things we humans do to each other and we keep doing it again! You can feel the frustration in the scripture. “I taught you how to walk but you keep walking in the wrong direction!” To make it worse, so often our reaction is filled with just as much hate. God must be so angry! But God puts aside anger and hurt and instead responds with love and hope. How on earth is that possible? But Hosea tells us:
“For I am God, NOT a human being; I am the Holy One in your midst.”
God brought the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt and has continued to guide all of God’s people out of the dark times ever since, no matter how many times they find themselves back in the thick of it. That book is called Exodus because it tells the story of how the people were brought out of a bad place. But God continues to bring people out of those places. Exodus continues to happen. Exodus is God’s business. It is the nature of our world that tragedy happens. It is the nature of God to be the Holy One in our midst no matter where we are or what we are facing. There is hope. God has promised it. The God of Ancient Israel is the God of Paris and of Beirut and of Sudbury. There is always hope. God grieves with us but knows another day is coming. God already knows it.
Now, I didn’t pick this verse to read today. Tom didn’t pick it. The people who picked it don’t know me but the first time I read it I was pretty sure they don’t like me. It’s a tough verse! We follow the narrative lectionary, which lays out ahead of time every scripture reading for the entire year. So every church that uses that lectionary is reading this verse today.
I have to be honest, earlier this week I was having a hard time coming up with a sermon for this scripture. It’s a complicated chapter but there’s a lot of good stuff here. I was just really having a hard time figuring out which direction to take it in. I prayed, and did my research, and talked to a few people but I kept feeling like I was missing something here. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be saying about this. But now I believe that this scripture was chosen for today because God knew that we would need it. Of course I couldn’t figure it out on Monday. We didn’t need it Monday. But this is how much God loves us. These horrible things were coming but God was already at work, already providing hope for us in this situation. And God is now with us here, grieving here, working here. God didn’t want this to happen, but there is hope here. God has prepared it and will amplify it, and change things through it.
When Zak Ebrahim was seven years old, he went with his father and a group of his father’s friends to a shooting range. These were men he had known all his life, men he looked up to, men he called “uncle.” When it was his turn to shoot, Zac accidentally hit a little light at the top of the target and the whole thing burst into flames. Nobody expected that to happen and the men laughed and clapped him on the back and he heard them say to each other, “Like father, like son.” Those men (and Zak’s father) were eventually convicted planning the first attack on the World Trade Center, an event that happened in 1993, only months after the day at the shooting range.
Zak’s father’s name was El-Sayyid Nosair. In 1990 he shot and killed the leader of the Jewish Defense League. He was sent to prison and from there he helped to plan the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, which injured over 1,000 people and killed six. In a famous video message, Osama bin Laden urged the world to remember El-Sayyid Nosair.
In the years ahead, Zak would look back to that day on the shooting range and how the men had said, “Like father, like son.” In his TED talk he says, “It wasn’t until a few years later that I fully understood what they thought was so funny. They thought they saw in me the same destruction my father was capable of.” This could have been Zak’s path. He could have continued in the footsteps of his father. But instead he travels the world “preaching peace, love, religious tolerance, and redemption” (according to Victoria Advocate). How did THAT happen?
Zak was raised to believe that people who were Jewish, or gay, or American were evil, a bad influence, and intent on turning him evil as well. He did not know any of these people. They were entirely foreign to him. And they could have remained so had he not had the opportunity to build relationships.
The first opportunity came when he participated in the National Youth Convention in 2000. Toward the end of the convention he found out that one of the kids he had become friendly with was Jewish. In his TED talk he tells us:
“It had taken several days for this detail to come to light, and I realized that there was no natural animosity between the two of us. I had never had a Jewish friend before, and frankly I felt a sense of pride in having been able to overcome a barrier that for most of my life I had been led to believe was insurmountable.”
Another opportunity came for Zak when he took a summer job at an amusement park. He worked closely with performers in the shows, some of whom were gay. He found that many were the “kindest, least judgmental people” he had ever known. As he would later say, “I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, but I’m well acquainted with being judged for something that’s beyond my control.”
The turning point for Zak came with a conversation with his mother. He said, his mother looked at him with the weary eyes of someone who had experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime and said, ‘I’m tired of hating people.’” Zak made the decision to live his life in a different way.
In his book, The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice, Zak tells us:
“The fact that my father went to prison for an unfathomable crime when I was seven just about ruined my life. But it also made my life possible. He could not fill me with hate from jail. And, more than that, he could not stop me from coming in contact with the sorts of people he demonized and discovering that they were human beings – people I could care about and who could care about me. Bigotry cannot survive experience. My body rejected it. …By telling my story, my intention is to do something hopeful and instructive. …All our lives have themes, and the theme of mine so far is this: Everyone has a choice. Even if you’re trained to hate, you can choose tolerance. You can choose empathy.”
El-Sayyid Nosair’s hate led him to attempt mass murder. We had no reason to think his son would be any different. But there was hope in that situation and God found it and amplified and is now using it to change the world. Since Zak’s TED talk in 2014, nearly 3 million people have watched the video. Thousands more have bought his book or attended his lectures.
Zak is changing the world.
Hosea promises us that God will do the same thing today. We don’t know what it looks like yet, but we have been promised.
This stuff is scary. If change was left to us alone it may seem absolutely hopeless. But there is hope there, even if we can’t see it. God sees it. There is a boy, or there is a little girl, there is somebody in this situation whose life will change and that person will then start to change the world. Or maybe it won’t look anything like that this time. But God will not leave us here in the dark place, and God didn’t bring us here. Exodus will come. We have been promised. And we know that promise will be kept because that is the nature of God.
It was not God’s plan for these things to happen in Paris and in Beirut. God’s plan is to lead us through. God’s plan is what is coming next.
I can’t tell you why bad things happen. In fairness, it’s only my first year in seminary and I guess we will get to that until next semester. But I can tell you that when these things do happen God is already there, sowing the seeds of hope. Humans veer off the path and do terrible things sometimes. We may look at a person like El-Sayyid Nosair and despair that the world will ever change.
But then God says, “Oh, wait until you hear the love that pours out of that man’s son.”