Learning Hope from Dr. Jeffrey Cohen

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John 11:32-44

1.

October 27 marked the 300th day of this year. It also marked the 294th mass shooting this year in our country.

We all watched in horror as the news unfolded last Saturday.

Earlier that morning, Robert Bowers had entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and begun shooting his legally owned AR-15.

Then, in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital, after receiving several gunshot wounds himself from police, Bowers yelled out, “I want to kill all the Jews!”

He yelled the same thing some minutes later in the Emergency Room.

Ironically, a medical team led by a Jewish man treated Bowers in the hospital.

In the end: eleven worshipers had been slain, gunned down in a crime of hate, making this the largest massacre of our Jewish sisters and brothers in our nation’s history!

Holly and I visited Temple Beth Sholom here in Temecula on Friday night—to stand in solidarity and pray with people we love.

And, you know, a Jewish prayer service is really not all that different from a Christian prayer service! There are minor differences, sure—some of the readings are in Hebrew, for instance—but, at the core, Christians and Jews are largely the same: trying our best to find and serve God according to what we know—according to the revelation God has given us.

So:

The 300th day of the year!

The 294th mass shooting!

That’s nearly one mass shooting a day.

That’s more than a thousand people, already, who have lost their lives this year to gun violence.

And why?

2.

This week the Christian church around the world celebrated Halloween (a. k. a. All Halloweds Eve, or All Saints Eve); as well as All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Along these lines, a large portion of the Americas also celebrated Dia de Los Muertos.

It is a week when Christians focus on the people we have known and loved who have passed before us through the veil of death and beyond. In fact, during the Prayers of the People today I will offer us a time to name loved ones who are no longer with us.

These are days of grieving; and mourning. For we miss our beloved friends and family members with whom we’ve journeyed through part of this life together. We see a photo or speak their names or catch a scent that reminds us; and we’re suddenly reduced to tears.

But these are also days of rejoicing, of celebrating the lives and legacies they left behind.

We rejoice and celebrate because we hope in the resurrection. Death, we know, is only part of the story. And it’s the smaller part! For, we also know, death has been truly and finally vanquished by our Lord, Savior, Redeemer, and Friend Christ Jesus.

Which is why, by the way, the liturgical color of a funeral is white—same as a wedding!—same as today! It’s not so much about mourning as it is about rejoicing; not so much death as resurrection; not so much old life as new!

That’s how it’s supposed to be, at least.

But what if, instead, it feels like the mourning and grieving ought to take precedence—like when the loss is still too fresh to focus on much else; like now, at this moment in our nation’s history, when hate crimes are almost a daily occurrence?

How can we maintain any hope at all when such despairing obstacles get in the way?

3.

And then there’s this troubling question: What about the man who pulled the trigger?

I wonder, what would you have done in the Emergency Room doctor’s shoes? What would I have done?

The Jewish community in Pittsburgh is relatively small—Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where you’ll find nearly all of the Jewish community, has a population of about 25,000 people—and it has been there for several generations, certainly since the first half of the nineteenth century, possibly quite a bit earlier.

The Jewish network in Pittsburgh is tight; and it runs deep.

Imagine, then, with this kind of network, you’re leading a team of medical professionals in the E. R.; and a man is rushed in with gunshot wounds, bleeding, in need of urgent medical attention.

And he yells out, “I want to kill all the Jews!”

What do you do when you connect the dots?

What do you do when you suddenly realize, with horror, that this man before you is the very man who just entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and unleashed violence and death on the worshipers?

What do you do when you learn that he took the lives of eleven innocent people—eleven of your people?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could carry on. As much as I know, in my head, that I have a duty to seek to do all within my power to heal each person in my care, my emotions might just carry the day in this particular situation. I think I might have to find another doctor and say, “Take this one, please; I simply cannot.”

But the Jewish E. R. doctor did take Bowers under his care; along with a Jewish nurse, whose father just so happens to be a local rabbi.

Dr. Jeffrey Cohen caught wind of this unfolding drama. Dr. Cohen is the president of Allegheny General Hospital, where the perpetrator was taken for care. In fact, sitting in his office, Dr. Cohen heard the gunshots from the shootout. Even closer to home, Dr. Cohen is a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue; and personally knew nine of the eleven victims.

You know what Dr. Cohen did? He went to the E. R. and told the doctor and nurse attending Bowers that he was proud of them.

Then he approached Bowers himself and asked how he was doing, whether he was in pain.

Bowers said he was okay then asked who he was; to which Cohen replied, “I’m Dr. Cohen, the president of this hospital.”[i]

I don’t think I would have been able to do any of that. I don’t think, in that moment, I’d have had any hope at all. Would you?

4.

In today’s Gospel, death confronts Jesus with a number of despairing obstacles.

First, Jesus was delayed. If only Jesus had been able to get there earlier, Mary lamented, her brother Lazarus would not have died.

Then, second, Jesus could not lay his hands on Lazarus, or even look at him, for a large stone stood in the way, blocking the tomb’s entrance.

Third—suppose someone were to roll the stone away—there’d be the stench! Death has already claimed Lazarus, made certain by the smell of decay.

And, finally, in case all that weren’t enough already, Lazarus is wearing grave clothes—already clothed in death.

Death has won! All hope is vanquished.

There’s nothing left for us, we think, but to despair, be angry, and hate.

But see what Jesus does!

He weeps with Mary and the others.

He goes to where Lazarus lies.

He includes others: “Roll away the stone,” he says.

He then calls Lazarus forth.

And he tells the others to take off Lazarus’s grave clothes.

Jesus overcomes all the obstacles that death throws at him, taking each in turn; until, truly and finally, death is vanquished!

5.

For us today, many despairing obstacles stand in hope’s way. To name just a few:

  • The heavy stone of hatred, bigotry, and prejudice.
  • The decaying stench of intolerance and racism.
  • The fearsome grave clothes of homophobia and xenophobia.

These obstacles aren’t death itself; but they point to it.

Unless we weep with those who weep, confront these obstacles squarely, and roll them away together, death is all we will see: our hope is eclipsed.

Oh, but when we do, it’s Easter all over again!

Every year, on November 1, we remember all the saints—all those who have believed, do believe, or will believe that Jesus is the pathway to the divine.

But this isn’t enough; so every year, on November 2, we remember all souls—every person who has lived, does live, or will live.

Every soul!

Including all the holy women and men of the church!

Including all those who lost their lives a week ago in Pittsburgh!

And including even the perpetrators!

Vanquishing death forever means vanquishing our hatred now; including our hatred for the perpetrator.

Today, Dr. Jeffrey Cohen gives me hope.

[i] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2018/10/30/im-dr-cohen-powerful-humanity-jewish-hospital-staff-that-treated-robert-bowers/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.86137fad168a.

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