Matthew 5:21-26; 7:12

This isn’t the sermon I had planned to preach today.  But in light of what happened on the campus of Virginia Tech this past week, how can our thoughts be anywhere else?  When I heard about the shootings on Monday, I was taken back to a day in August of 1966, when there was another massacre, at the University of Texas.  I was in high school in Fort Worth at the time, but my sister was a student at the University of Texas in Austin, and her husband was a graduate student in the architecture school there.  On that summer day almost forty-one years ago, a 25 year-old graduate student commandeered the clock tower in the center of the campus, and using a high-powered rifle he randomly shot passers-by in the plaza below.  All told he killed 15 people, and wounded many others, before he himself was killed.  Neither my sister nor her husband was among the victims, but my brother-in-law walked past the tower only minutes before the shooting started.  Needless to say, we were worried, and greatly relieved when we learned they were all right.

The rampage at Virginia Tech is only the latest chapter is a horrific saga of “mass murders” in our country.  So called “spree” shootings at high schools, post offices, businesses, and restaurants have taken a terrible toll in lost and wounded lives.  It is estimated that at least half of those mass murderers were mentally disturbed, but all of those killers must have been disturbed in some way to take innocent lives.  We seek to understand why such tragic events take place, and there are no easy answers.  There are many factors that contribute to such violence.  Mental illness is one factor, as is social isolation.  The easy availability of firearms and ammunition is another factor.  So is the depiction of violence in movies, video games, television, popular music, and the Internet.  So are the breakdown of families and lack of discipline and values in some young people.  Among the other industrialized nations of the world, the United States is developing a reputation as a violent and dangerous place.  That reputation is not wholly undeserved.  Witness the recent spate of killings here in Prince George’s County.  For a couple of weeks, there was a murder almost every day.  According to the Brady Campaign, about 30,000 people in America are killed every year by firearms.  Wayne Price, a member of our church, has a ministry of victim advocacy and support for the survivors of violent crime.  Unfortunately, it is a growth industry.  There is no shortage of crime victims and surviving family members needing help.  Wayne also serves on the parole board for the Patuxent Institute, a corrections facility here in Maryland.  Wayne says that as he sits on the parole board and listens to the stories of those who perpetrated violent crimes, one theme comes up again and again:  a lack of respect for human life.

One of the scripture verses that we read a few moments ago is known as the Golden Rule:  do to others as you would have them do to you.  It came from Jesus, as he was teaching his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus said that it sums up the teachings of the law and the prophets.  Frankly, if everybody lived by the Golden Rule, we would not have an epidemic of violence in our society.  But many people do not live by the Golden Rule.  Many people live only for themselves, and as a result they have a shocking disrespect for the lives of others.  

The other passage that we read is also from the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus quoted a crucial and central law of the Old Testament:  You shall not murder.  That was one of the Ten Commandments.  It’s one of the fundamental principles of every civilized society.  Murder is wrong.  Yet we live in a time when murder is commonplace.  Just about every night on the news there are more murders reported in our area.  Even in our “civilized society” there is a shocking disrespect for human life.                 

I titled this sermon, “Reverence of Life,” rather than “Respect for Life,” because the word “reverence” lifts the discussion to a higher plane.  Reverence comes from God, and that is why we have reverence for life, because life comes from God.  Reverence is more than respect.   As Christians we don’t just have respect for life, we have reverence for life.  We recognize that all of us life is a gift from God, and that those who would destroy life invoke God’s judgment and condemnation.

The phrase “reverence for life” was coined by a missionary doctor named Albert Schweitzer.  He was born in 1875 in the Alsace-Loraine region between Germany and France.  As a young boy he began to develop a deep sympathy for all living things.  At the age of eight a friend invited him to go out into the woods to shoot birds with their slingshots.  Albert reluctantly went along, but once there he couldn’t see the point of killing defenseless birds with rocks, so he left and went home.  Thus began a lifetime devoted to what Albert would later call his guiding moral principle, “reverence for life.”

As a young man Albert Schweitzer served as pastor of a church in Germany.  He was a brilliant student of the Bible.  His book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, became a standard of biblical study for most of the 20th century.  Albert Schweitzer was also an accomplished musician.  He would later become known throughout Europe as a world-class organist and interpreter of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.  But in the midst of his work as a pastor and scholar, Schweitzer felt called to the mission field in Africa, not only to the mission field, but to medical missions.  So, although already having earned doctorates in theology and philosophy, he enrolled in medical school to earn a medical degree as well.  Soon after his marriage, Albert and his wife moved to French Equatorial Africa where they established a hospital in the jungle.  Dr. Schweitzer saw his work as a medical missionary in some way as recompense for the colonial abuses European governments had inflicted upon the people of Africa. 

In the summer of 1915 Dr. Schweitzer was traveling up the Ogooue River to treat the wife of a Swiss missionary who had fallen ill.  The First World War was raging in Europe and the Middle East, and Dr. Schweitzer was horrified by the carnage and man’s inhumanity to man.  During the 120 mile journey upstream he resolved to devote the entire trip to thinking about how “a culture could be brought into being that possessed a greater moral depth and energy than the one we lived in.”  Schweitzer said that “weariness and a sense of despair paralyzed” his thinking. 

But at sunset of the third day of the journey, their boat floated along an island in the middle of the wide river.  On a sandbank to the left he saw four hippopotamuses and their young plodding along in the same direction.  That scene of man in harmony with nature lifted his spirit.  The phrase, “reverence for life,” struck him like a flash.  So far as he knew he had never read nor heard that phrase before.  But at once he realized that that phrase carried within itself the solution to the problem that had been torturing him.  Schweitzer later wrote, “Only by means of reverence for life can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with both people and all living creatures within our reach.  Only in this fashion can we avoid harming others, and, within the limits of our capacity, go to their aid whenever they need us.”

“Reverence for Life” would become the guiding principle of Albert Schweitzer’s life.  For most of the next fifty years, until his death in 1965, Dr. Schweitzer would continue to treat patients at his hospital in Gabon, Africa.  From time to time he would travel throughout Europe giving organ concerts and speeches to raise money for the hospital, and he even made a trip to the United States in 1949.  But always he returned to Africa to continue serving as a missionary doctor.  In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, not just for his work at the hospital, but for advancing “reverence for life” around the world.  He spent the last years of his life speaking out for nuclear disarmament. 

When Schweitzer spoke of reverence of life, he meant reverence for all of life, including not just people, but all living things.  He was far ahead of his time in calling for the humane treatment of animals in medical experiments and for food production.  He also was ahead of his time in his concern about the care of the earth.  Schweitzer once wrote, “The farmer who has mown down a thousand flowers in his meadow as fodder for his cows, must be careful on his way home not to strike off in wanton pastime the head of a single flower by the roadside.”  Schweitzer recognized that sometimes killing is necessary, such as killing plants for food, or killing animals for medical research or as food for people.  Reverence for all life does not mean that all life has equal value.  We value animal life over plant life, and we value human life over all other life forms.  Since reverence for life includes reverence for our own lives, legitimate self-defense is justified.  But Schweitzer insisted that we think before we kill anything, and that we never kill needlessly  

The chilling video excerpts from the Virginia Tech madman shown on television revealed a total absence of reverence for life.  The killer had no reverence for the lives of others, or even reverence for his own life.  Like most mass murderers he was an isolated and frustrated individual who was so delusional and self-centered that he thought the whole world was against him.  Among the many victims of his violence were the members of his own family who forever will carry the shame of what he did.    

The Washington Post did a great service by printing a profile of each shooting victim, providing a picture and some biographical information about each of those 32 persons who were killed last Monday.  As I read the biographical sketches of each one, I grieved at the tragic deaths of such gifted students and professors.  Each one of them had something to offer to the world, and each one was making a contribution in his or her own way.  Their stories reminded me how much we have lost, but they also reminded me that each day is a precious gift.  Reading about those who died gave me a reverence for life, reverence of their lives, and reverence for life itself, as a gift from God.  We cannot bring them back, but we can honor their memory by working to make the world a better place, a place where we do to others as we would have them do to us, a place where we learn to live together in harmony and peace.  For God’s sake, in Christ’s name, let us teach our children and grandchildren and all who come after us reverence for life. 

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
April 22, 2007

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