Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

November 12, 2017

Lessons:

Amos 5:18-24

Psalm 70

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Matthew 25:1-13

 

*

Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

We are gathering this morning in the wake of a mass shooting in our country.

It is America. It’s 2017. And so these are words that I could reasonably use to begin a sermon on essentially any Sunday of the year.

Appallingly:

These are words that I could reasonably use to begin a sermon on essentially any Sunday of the year.

The latest high profile shooting took place in a church in rural Texas this past Sunday morning. And I don’t want to suggest this shooting was any worse because it happened in a church as opposed to in a school or a concert or a movie theatre or a public square. It wasn’t. What I will say that a shooting in a church is larger in my imagination, both because church is where I spend a whole lot of my time and because, in my understanding of this world, church is somewhere safe. I am reminded of what my friend and colleague James, a gay man, said after the Pulse nightclub shooting: James said that in the gay community, a club is supposed to be a place of freedom and joy, a place of refuge. A lot like church. And it is the grossest kind of violation when someone brings violence into your place of refuge.

Maybe it’s because this latest example of gun violence of has landed so near to my heart, maybe it’s because in a six week period we had two of the worst mass shootings in our country’s history – I don’t know – but I do know that the ongoing, horrifying reality of gun violence in America is particularly urgent in my mind this week.

Maybe the same is true for you.

Gun violence has become part of our country’s daily reality. What we know – the data is abundant – is that mass shootings, as appalling and attention getting as they are, are actually a fraction of the problem. Far more common, as Nicholas Kristof put it in his excellent and hard to read article this week in the New York Times, is “a friend who shoots another, a husband who kills his wife – or, most common of all, a man who kills himself.” There is absolutely no question that more guns equate with more violence of this kind, more death of this kind. To choose Kristof’s final example, that of suicide, when an individual in crisis attempts suicide by taking pills or cutting open the veins in their wrists, it is possible for them to change their minds and call 911. When such an individual attempts suicide by pulling a trigger, the possibility of changing their minds is gone.

Countries that have fewer guns consistently have fewer violent deaths. The jury is not out about this.

And so here, on Sunday morning, in church, the question is this:

What are we supposed to do?

And in particular, what are we supposed to do as people of faith?

I want to be really careful or intentional or deliberate about that question. I want us to ask this morning, “What are we supposed to do as people of faith?”

not

“Given that we have decided what to do, how will we make that decision conform to our faith?”

I want to be really careful because it seems to me that Christians like you and like me, when we encounter a moral crisis such as this one, a cultural crisis such as this one, will often to decide what we want to do or are supposed to do and then we will to try to make our faith fit the decision that we have already made. We reverse engineer, in other words, reading our favourite blog, listening to our favourite voices on Twitter, scanning our favourite newspaper, we make a decision and then we ask: how can I find backup for my decision in scripture or in church? Where can I get the proof texts that will make my case?

Through this strategy, without meaning it, we reduce Jesus to a Rorschach Test, into a mirror who does nothing but reflect ourselves back to us. Instead of Jesus being our teacher, we make him into our student. If we are liberal, Jesus is liberal; if we are conservative, Jesus is conservative. However we live, whatever we think, Jesus is there to back us up.

Let’s not do that this morning. Let’s ask a better, more faithful question. Maybe we could phrase it this way:

Who is Jesus? And what does who Jesus is have to teach us about a Christian response to gun violence?

Let’s try out a few answers to those twin question together.

Jesus is the one who embodies the promise that no one is outside of or excluded from the love of God. Jesus embodies this promise through his choice to share meals with everyone, to heal everyone, to tell stories to everyone, no matter how unpopular or unimportant or even hated those persons may be. In John, Jesus says of his sheep – of you, of me, of everyone – “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[1] Jesus is in the abundant life business. What Jesus wants for you and me is abundant life. What Jesus wants for the one who is gunned down is abundant life. What Jesus wants – and this is harder – for the one who pulls the trigger is abundant life. Jesus, in other words, sees the infinite worth of every human being, the belovedness of every human being, the image of God in every human being.

What following the one who came that everyone might have life and have it abundantly, who sees infinite worth in everyone, means for gun violence is that we as disciples of Jesus are not allowed to be indifferent to this issue, to ignore it because it makes us uncomfortable or because it invites conflict into our churches or our families or because it risks overwhelming us with despair. We are not allowed to become numb, to react to the news of the latest shooting with a shrug.

Gun violence is antithetical to abundant life. It is antithetical to abundant life for the one who is killed. And here again I will bring up the perpetrator: it is antithetical to abundant life for the one who kills. As my friend Douglas Williams puts it, the problem with murder isn’t just that it makes someone else dead. The problem with murder is that it makes you into a murderer. The cost to the perpetrator’s humanity, to their soul, is enormous.

As disciples of Jesus, we are not allowed the privilege or the luxury of having no opinion on gun violence.

Jesus is the one who is persistently non-violent. When Jesus is rejected by the Samaritan village in Luke, and his friends James and John ask if they should call fire down from heaven and destroy the village, Jesus rebukes them.[2] When Jesus is betrayed by Judas and one of his disciples pulls out a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the people who has come to arrest Jesus, Jesus tells him to put it away. Do you not think, he says, that my Father would’ve sent an army if I had asked for it?[3] Throughout his life, Jesus faces the demons of this world unarmed. He goes to the horror of the cross unarmed.

What that means is that, as disciples, the response that we offer to violence cannot be more violence or better violence or the right kind of violence. We are not allowed to argue that, if we just fine-tuned the violence enough, then gun violence would end. We are not allowed, in other words, to argue for a scenario in which we try to stop school shootings by arming teachers. We are not allowed to argue for a scenario in which I respond to a church shooting by carrying a pistol under my vestments. “All who take the sword,” says Jesus, “will perish by the sword.”[4]

Now to be absolutely clear, non-violence is not passivity. Non-violence is not being a doormat when people beat you up. That is not the example of Dr. King, it is not the example of Ghandi, it is not the example of Jesus. As we talked about a number of months ago when we encountered Jesus’ teaching on turning the other cheek, Jesus resists evil, absolutely, unequivocally. What Jesus never does is to return evil for evil, to respond to violence with violence of his own. To follow Jesus is to actively and non-violently resist gun violence.

Jesus is the one who understands that human beings need symbols within which to encounter beauty, to encounter grief, to encounter healing, belonging, and meaning – to encounter the great questions of being alive and on this earth. Two of Jesus’ primary symbols are bread and wine. In the mystery of them, we encounter the Kingdom of God, we encounter Christians across time and space, we encounter Jesus himself. I don’t understand that, but I trust it.

It seems to me that, in our country’s conversation about gun violence, we are largely neglecting the role of the gun as symbol. I had a conversation with a colleague recently who argued that guns are tools, nothing more and nothing less. But then my colleague talked about the place of pride that a gun or a gun safe has in the living rooms of most of the homes in the town where she lives – the safe is the first thing that you will see when you enter the home. And I thought to myself: that doesn’t sound like a tool. I own a lot of tools and, when you come over to my house and look around my living room, you will not see my belt sander. I keep it in the basement.

My guess is that, for a lot of our neighbours, the gun is displayed prominently because it is a symbol of personal agency, of freedom, of safety, of personal responsibility. My colleague, Jeremy Lucas, encountered the gun as symbol, maybe a year ago, when he won an AR-15 in a raffle, the gun that is most commonly used in mass shootings, and then, in an echo of Isaiah and Micah[5], invited a sculptor cut it up and turn it into a work of art. Jeremy got hate mail. Someone called him and asked how he would’ve felt if someone were to stomp on a crucifix – in the American psyche, the gun and the crucifix are comparable symbols, worthy of comparable reverence.

Jeremy said that he figured that the whole thing would’ve blown over soon if he had burned a flag.

As a country, as a community, as individuals, we need symbols of personal agency, of freedom, of safety, of personal responsibility. I’m wondering how, as Christians, we can lovingly suggest alternative symbols to the gun. I’m wondering how we can help make my first colleague’s argument true, and make the gun back into a tool which is appropriately used, for instance, by people who hunt or who live on ranches where they may encounter dangerous animals.

Jesus is the one who continually sends those who are suffering his thoughts and prayers.

And who then Jesus is the one who translates those thoughts and those prayers into action.

Scripture tells us that Jesus goes to the synagogue every Sabbath day.[6] Scripture tells us that Jesus’ personal practice includes prayer by himself.[7] And to encounter the fecundity of his storytelling is to know that he spends a whole lot of time thinking.

And having thought and then prayed, Jesus acts.

Jesus’ thoughts and prayers are what call him into healing the sick, what call him into feeding the hungry, what call him into casting out the demons.

It’s kind of fashionable right now to dump on thoughts and prayers; I can’t go on social media without seeing someone mocking thoughts and prayers. But, as the wonderful Jesuit Priest James Martin says, thinking and praying are both really good things. And genuine thinking and genuine praying about suffering, about injustice, about a subject such as gun violence cannot help but lead us into action. If we speak of thoughts and prayers and then remain silent and passive, odds are good that we aren’t actually thinking or praying a whole lot. Odds are good that we aren’t paying much attention to the voice or to the example of Jesus.

Listen today to the prophet Amos, speaking in the voice of God. God says:

I don’t want your festivals, I don’t want your offerings, I don’t want your assemblies, if they don’t lead to justice. I don’t want your thoughts and prayers if they don’t lead to justice.

Maybe all of this is to say that Jesus is the one who never gives up hope. Hope for a newer world, hope for healing, hope for the Kingdom.

Is Jesus’ hope naïve?

Yes it is.

Jesus’ hope is thoroughly naïve. It is a holy naïveté. It is what Paul calls foolishness. It is a hope that yearns for something that may look impossible. But then, sometimes, it makes the impossible happen. How recently did we imagine that marriage equality was impossible in America? Ten years ago? Five years ago? But it’s happened, it’s the law of the land. How recently did we know that America would never have an African American president? Fifteen years ago? The day before the election? But it happened. How recently before the Berlin Wall fell did know that it would stand forever? I remember that day vividly. If you had asked me on the afternoon that it came down how long it would stand, I would’ve told you that the wall would still be there for my grandchildren.

We could keep on giving examples. Of things that looked like naïveté until one day, through the hope and the work of many, they turned into reality. Dare we engage in the naïveté of hoping and working for an end to gun violence in America? Well, if justice is to roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream, if we are to say “yes” to Jesus, then hope and work we must.

[1] John 10:10, NRSV.

[2] Luke 9:54–55, NRSV.

[3] Matthew 26:53.

[4] Matthew 26:52, NRSV.

[5] Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3.

[6] Luke 4:16.

[7] Matt 14:23.