Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
Exodus 20:1-17 † Psalm 19 † Corinthians 1:18-25 † John 2:13-22
Nikolas Cruz was not mentally ill. Let’s say it more accurately: any mental illness Nikolas Cruz had, under current law, would not have qualified as justification to taking him off the streets or taking away his guns.
The 19-year old shooter who walked into Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 17 people, who on Valentine’s Day denied these souls and their web of family and friends and loves their constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, who on Ash Wednesday added meaning to the affirmation that you are dust and to dust you shall return, does not appear to have had a mental illness that would or should have ever led to his commitment into an institution.
This is not to say he wasn’t deeply troubled. He had a long history of violent and disturbing behavior that gave light to a sea of unsettledness, violence and despair. And in November of last year, all of this rage was multiplied exponentially when he lost his mother.
Many had tried to intervene. “His mother made a major push to have him lead a normal life,” said Paul Gold, a neighbor of the Cruz family who remained in touch with Nikolas up until his mother’s funeral in November. “But toward the end of her life, she really had given up,” he noted [i]
All of these red flags. All of these warning signs. Nicholas Cruz was not mentally ill. He was out of control, and he was in mourning after losing his mom November 1st.
Gold said he believes a host of factors contributed to Cruz’s instability: his mental illness, the bullying, an obsession with violent video games, his mother dying, no safety net.
“None of this is an excuse for the horrible, horrible thing that he did,” Gold said. “None of it — but if you wanted to create a kid who was a serial killer, this is how you would do it.”[ii]
One of many 911 calls about him was from a woman who had taken him in out of compassion. But four weeks later, there was a crisis. He was upset and out of control. He was punching walls and got into a fight with her son. She called 911 because he was obsessed with guns, and they were worried he would come back for them with a rifle that he had purchased and, after the waiting period, was picking up at a local Dick’s Sporting Goods.
It turns out there was a second 911 call that occurred almost simultaneously. This one was from Nicholas Cruz, his voice wavering. “Hi,” he said to the operator. “I was just assaulted now. Someone attacked me. He said he was going to gut me if I came back.” Nikolas talks to the operator about how he just started getting mad and punching walls. And the kid came after him and started attacking him, threw him on the ground, threw him out of the house.
“The thing is,” he said into a lull in the exchange with the operator, “I lost my mother a couple of weeks ago, and I’m dealing with a bunch of stuff right now.”
Both calls came to the same police department, which recognized immediately the connection. The police were able to get the three back together and work through the misunderstanding. They were able to “hug it out,” and the police left.
There were warnings with Nikolas Cruz. Many warnings that should have been heeded, he should have been surrounded with firm love, limits, and engagement. Instead there was a complex and dysfunctional system, a web of interests and a storm of emotionally laden responses that have circumvented our ability to think and act with clear and wise intent. And then, there is us. Cruz was ostracized and bullied himself. He was, in many ways, a product of a remarkably inhumane environment, of which we are a part as well—both victim and perpetrator.
These commandments—they are used as a sign, as a bludgeon, as a wedge. But how often are they used as the guide to well-being they were intended to be? And what do you suppose was Jesus driving from the temple in John’s gospel?
You see, the other gospels have this story of the cleansing of the temple too. But John is the only one that puts it right up at the beginning of his book—the others put it in his last week before his crucifixion. And you may have noticed some other peculiarities too. The violent energy of the story that seems present in the other gospels and seems so present in our own culture every day is missing here. In an almost Zen-like moment, Jesus seems to sit and prepare that whip almost as if it is an object for his meditation, but it doesn’t seem that he uses it like a weapon. It seems to be more of a tool for restoring order, a shepherd’s crook, for guiding things back to their proper place, for setting things right and recovering this story of life blessed by guidelines and guided by love.
There’s this great little phrase in the story that almost slips right by. Maybe you noticed it. Listen again: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.”
So, let me ask you, who did Jesus drive out with that whip?
Apparently, no humans were harmed in this story. I’d like to think that no animals were either. I’d like to think they were given their life back—and maybe a day off along with those who are hungry for something deeper than a transactional relationship to a vending machine God. I’d like to think they were given a vacation day of rest to graze through the streets of Jerusalem, sheep and cattle taking in the sights before they were corralled and once again saddled with their burdens.
I think the link that this story in John has with the Exodus telling of the Ten Commandments is found in the middle commandment, the one that gets the most real-estate. Did anyone notice which of the commandments that is?
In the English, the last six commandments—honor father and mother, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet—those six altogether get a total of 82 words. The commandment about keeping the Sabbath—that all by itself gets 93—11 more than the last six. In the original Hebrew the difference is even starker: the last six commandments—41 Hebrew words, the Sabbath commandment—55 by itself.
We might almost get the idea that being attentive to rest matters, that attending to a balance of good work and good rest may just have something important to do with remembering, with re-balancing our lives in a world that seems to have lost its moorings, a shepherd’s crook of sorts, guiding us back to wholeness and sustainability, and ultimately, to our true home in God. A needed rest that gets us righted again, that declutters our minds and helps us to see clearly again—perhaps like those Stoneman Douglas high schoolers who were able to cut through all of the poisonous rhetoric to speak truth in a way that has had more staying power than anything before.
It is no surprise to us, of course, that these commandments have functioned throughout our history in all sorts of ways—some more beneficial than others. But I would suggest to you that they are simply is an invitation to have your life changed. Giving attention to them invites us into practices of reflection that offer us a way from death to new life, these commandments like this font and this meal and this word live among us as signs along this ancient path to be followed, waypoints and directions to help us keep our bearings and find our way, bringing us back to the way of Christ that takes us from death to new life.
Perhaps we should once again look closely and learn from them. Perhaps there is something here that is timeless and life-giving, that speaks to an ancient way that pulls us back to God and back to one another, that will give us the future we long for.
[i] See “To longtime friend, school shooter Nikilas Cruz was lonely, volatile, ostracized.” By Julie K. Brown. Miami Herals, February 17, 2018. Retrieved on March 1, 2017 from http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article200754714.html.
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