I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11
I don’t run. I probably should...but then again, should I? Even the happy, innocuous events in life that people look forward to, train for, schedule into their lives and finally get around to, can now be subject to violence and murder that is so senseless you can’t imagine where it will end.
The news of the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday is filling the space around us this week. There are the expected reactions of “I hope whoever did it fries in hell”, and the fear of losing what little ground we are gaining on gun-control issues. There is despair too: "I just can't explain what's wrong with people today to do this to other people," a father said, "I'm really starting to lose faith in our country." There are also amazing stories of those who dashed into the carnage to provide first aid, comfort, or to hold a hand; I read about a doctor who had just finished the race, and used his remaining strength to administer first aid to traumatically injured people.
And those of us on the periphery try to find sense in anecdotes like these, or thoughts like this quote from Fred Rogers: “When I was a little 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.’” More than mere platitudes, they touch and inspire us, and confirm our belief in humanity, and help us acknowledge that most people are basically good. But the headlines are loud in our ears, making us wonder: is every occasion where people gather in large groups now a potential target for violence? In 2013, it’s hard not to think so.
There is something else that can happen when people gather, which is more powerful than the best police security at a public event. Two thousand years ago, when there still was a temple, Jews went up to Jerusalem for Shavuot, the feast to commemorate the giving of the Torah on Sinai. Fifty days after Jesus’ death, Jerusalem was still trying to make sense of the crucifixion and resurrection of One it had labeled a criminal. The town was packed to the walls with travelers and citizens, a scene which today would have random violence scripted in. Indeed, the Holy City has had more than its share of violence – then and definitely now – but on that day something else happened. Among the thousands there were the disciples of Christ, who had been told to watch and pray, and wait. For what, they didn't know.
The celebration of the giving of the Torah, this traditional gathering of the people, became the visitation place for the Holy Spirit, and a power and an energy which took the form of tongues of fire came upon them. Instead of screams, blood, lost limbs and lost lives, people witnessed something totally other. God’s spirit was on the disciples; they went into the streets and the people saw the light in their eyes and faces.
We read in scripture how the story continues with the people's cry “What shall we do?”, and the answer: “Turn away from this crooked generation, repent and be baptized.” And we read of the three thousand that were added to the first church of the followers of Christ.
I can’t help thinking about these two crowds, one looking for some joyous energy and physical exuberance at the end of a long winter, but encountering, oh dear God please not, more murder and death; the other group gathering for a religious celebration and receiving the Holy Spirit. In the face of such tragedy, knowing that Boston is only part of an endless litany of grief and suffering, we too should be asking, “What shall we do?” And the answer will always be: turn away from this crooked generation, to Jesus, for the forgiveness of our sins, and to find faith and hope again.