After a few minutes, our conversation turned to what was really on our minds: the attack in Las Vegas.
We all had the same basic reaction. We are worn down by tragedy. All the suffering on the Gulf Coast, and in Mexico, and in Puerto Rico. And now this, the most depraved event of all. I and my little group of clergy friends were discouraged, and we felt helpless.
Of course, we will always be vulnerable to natural disaster and to human violence. But there are things we could do as a society to make ourselves less vulnerable, and yet we seem unable to do them. And so we know there will be more deadly storms. We know there will be more mass shootings.
One of our group was particularly bitter about everything that has happened and about our collective inability to take sensible precautions. He told us he could barely stand the idea of yet another prayer vigil, yet another ringing of the Church bells in solidarity with victims of a tragedy.
My clergy group never got back to the readings. Instead we grieved for an hour. As we prepared to go our separate ways, one person said that he really needed to pray. We took hands, and our host led us in a prayer of lament.
That hour was a holy time. I needed to gather with people of faith to acknowledge our pain and our frustration, our desire to help those who are suffering so much and our inability to help them in any tangible way.
I hope those of you are feeling something similar can find a way to offer up your own laments.
But in the end, despite everything that has happened, despite the awful things that will continue to happen, we are a people of hope.
And we continue to hope, even when things seem hopeless, because we are people of faith. We do not rely on the powers and principalities of this world to make all things right. We rely on God.
That is exactly what Paul says to the Christians of Philippi in our reading.
Paul starts by noting that “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh I have more.” Paul was born of the right people. Paul was trained by the best. Paul was zealous for the law and blameless in keeping it.
But what Paul learns is that his reasons for confidence in the flesh don’t mean anything in the end. “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” “Whatever gains.” Whatever reasons for confidence. “More than that,” Paul says, “I regard everything”—everything—“as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Paul knew what he was talking about. Paul saw some of the worst of what human beings can do to each other.
In our parish Bible study, we are reading the Acts of the Apostles. It is largely Paul’s story, and what we see in town after town is Paul and his little Churches experiencing persecution. They are driven from the synagogues and beaten in the streets and run out of town and threatened with death. Paul really did suffer the loss of all things. Humanly speaking, Paul had every reason for despair.
But Paul found hope in Jesus Christ. Paul never forgot that this is God’s creation, that we are God’s beloved children, that despite all the awfulness, we are moving towards God’s kingdom. Paul’s hope was in Christ, and Paul’s hope endured. So Paul kept going, kept hoping, kept serving Christ as best he could.
Today we commemorate Saint Francis, who is a like lot Paul in that.
Francis was a frivolous young man who enjoyed wine, women, and song. But life gets complicated even for a privileged young man. Francis was wounded in battle. Francis spent time as a prisoner of war. Francis got sick. Francis experienced humiliation.
As he lost his reasons for confidence in the flesh, Francis turned to God. One day when Francis was at prayer, he heard Jesus command him to “Rebuild my Church.”
Francis took Christ’s command literally. He began to gather stones to rebuild a ruined Church building. Over time, others joined him. It was like the first Church work day ever, with Francis as Junior Warden.
But eventually Francis realized that Christ meant more than to fix up a single building. Christ meant that the capital C Church was sick. Christ wanted Francis to heal it.
But what could one person do? Francis didn’t have a plan. Francis just did his best to live a faithful Christian life and left the rest to God.
Everything seemed to go well. During Francis’ lifetime, thousands joined him.
But Francis felt like a failure, and for some good reasons. He lost control of his movement. He worried that his erstwhile followers were abandoning the Christian life. At the same time, his own body began to fail. Francis went through a period of deep depression.
Even Saint Francis had to let go of whatever reasons he might have for confidence in the flesh. Francis had to rely totally on Jesus Christ. Francis had to leave everything in God’s hands. And when he did that, Francis found the hope to keep going.
All of that applies to us today.
We live in the most powerful country in all of human history. As a nation we have tremendous wealth and human talent. Our political and economic institutions have stood us in good stead for more than two centuries. If anyone has reason to be confident in the things of this world, it is us.
But what the last few weeks and months have reminded us with a depressing clarity is that all our reasons for confidence in the flesh, all our reasons to trust in our own resources, do not mean much. If they were all we had to go on, we might well give up in frustration or despair. That was the temptation my clergy friends and I felt last week.
But as Christians, as God’s people in our time, we are called to be people of hope. We are called to keep following God even when it is hard. We are called to love and serve our suffering neighbors, wherever they are.
And we are called to rebuild God’s Church.
Of course, on our own we can do nothing. Tragedy forces us to see that. But with God’s help, we can hold on to Christian hope even when things might seem hopeless.
And then great things can happen. We can be beacons of hope. In what can seem like a hopeless time, we can speak a word of hope. We can remind each other and everyone else that God is at work in our world. That alone helps rebuild God’s Church.
And so I encourage you to do two things this week. First, if you are feeling discouraged, take time to acknowledge that. Tell God about your struggles. If possible, do it with other people.
At the same time, remember that our hope is not in the flesh, not in the things of this world. Our hope is in God, the God we know in Jesus Christ.
Hold on to that hope, and share that hope. Because our world needs it, maybe now more than ever.
In the name of Jesus Christ, our rock and our salvation. Amen.