a place of hope…engaging gun violence
February 17, 2019
Today is the third Sunday of February and therefore the Sunday we take each month to lift up and examine an issue of current social concern. And while this is not a traditional way of sharing worship, I feel it is a way to be authentic in practicing the call of Jesus upon us…that call to ‘remember him in the breaking of the bread, and to do so as often as we meet’. But that in itself may not be enough of an explanation for why we upset the normal routine once a month and gather around a table that is often disturbing or perhaps even offensive to our sensibilities. There may still be those among you who wonder why we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in this way, what is its purpose, and why does it often skirt so close to topics that seem politically or socially charged?
In Matthew’s gospel in Chapter 6 and verse 33 we hear the familiar words to, ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be given unto you’. In this teaching of Jesus found in the middle of his Sermon on the Mount, we find the word righteousness. This word, which we normally associate with conditions or behaviors pleasing to God actually has a second meaning in the original Greek. The word for righteousness, ‘diakosune’ can indeed be translated from the Greek to mean a way of being that is pleasing to God. However, it can also mean the justice of God…therefore calling us to seek after justice for all God’s children, in all our affairs.
This is the Jesus I met, and the socially and politically charged gospel story of Jesus I came into awareness of in seminary…a story which I have ever since sought to share with all of you. If ever there was a politically charged document it is the gospel story of Jesus…in fact it might be well that some day we look together at all of the over-layering of political criticism and intrigue that came from the mouth and teachings of our Lord and which surrounded his three years of ministry among us.
And that rationale of a call to seek first the justice of God in all our affairs and indeed the Kingdom of God present and here among us, is what leads me to select a topic for closer consideration each month, a topic which I sincerely believe is one the Spirit wishes for us to engage upon, to study together, and hopefully be moved to do something about. For in that way perhaps we may begin to fulfill the call…seeking justice for all of our brothers and sisters in need of it.
Two weeks ago, I attended a seminar I am required to participate in every six weeks or so down at Stony Point Center. This 3-hour seminar is tasked with gathering pastors like myself, as well as others still in pastoral formation in order to share and learn about practical instruction and training for ministry. I find these seminars to be helpful not only in opening my eyes to new perspectives but also to allow me to share with others my own experiences as a pastor.
And during that seminar, which was considering the topic of preaching, and in particular of preaching about possibly divisive or difficult social issues, the topic of how one might deal with Gun Violence in our society was introduced. This topic, which no one felt was anything but of critical importance, nonetheless was one which several of my colleagues felt was untouchable for their own churches due to a strong culture of gun ownership within their congregation.
As a gun owner and former instructor in gun safety I knew their concerns and sought to convey that there is a need to separate out the issue of gun violence from gun ownership and the responsible use of firearms. For as I reminded them, there is no one who is not deeply opposed to gun violence in our schools or anywhere, and unless we can begin to at least dialog around issues as critical and difficult as these, we cannot begin to make a move towards healthier and safer communities. They agreed, and with that I returned home to ponder how I myself might lift up and address this issue here, in our own congregation, how I might lead a call to engage this destructive trend that does not seem to be diminishing whatsoever as almost daily we hear of more violence and death at the hand of someone with a gun.
And with that as a fairly long preamble seeking to share why we lift up the Sacrament of our Lord’s Table once a month in a way which is meant to challenge us to reflect and meaningfully engage on a new and deeper level, I wish to consider this topic of gun violence.
And I am not sure how many of you have been impacted directly by a school shooting but certainly many, many have. I can still remember the sinking feeling I had when I received word of a mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech in April of 2007 during my niece’s freshman year there. It was some time before we heard back from Nancy’s sister that in fact Katie was not among those killed or injured and that in fact, she had been able to safely shelter in place. It is not a terror I would wish on anyone and I am sure Nancy’s sister Carolyn was beside herself until she was able to get word of her daughter’s safety. But there were 32 other families who received news of the worst sort that same day…32 victims of a senseless attack on the very notion of community and family. And my story is not unique at all as mass shootings have continued on unabated for years and years…in fact I heard recently of a young man who survived the deadly Las Vegas concert shooting only to be gunned down a year later at another mass shooting in his hometown in California…surely this is something we all need to open our eyes to and become engaged in, if we are ever to reduce the frequency of such wanton killing.
Surely the rise of practice drills to deal with an active shooter on school property has indelible negative effects on the school children forced to undergo practice runs for such a terror. As one who vividly remembers air raid drills in elementary school and the fear of a nuclear attack as a child, I can only imagine the terror of being forced to practice something that has occurred over and over…something that for so many students has become a possible reality for them. Something has to change…but what? How can we begin to address this deep-seated problem involving guns that so quickly polarizes large portions of our population? Truly no one is in favor of continued violence involving guns anywhere in our society…not in our schools, not in our places of work, not in our homes. And aside from the argument on whether or not there still is a valid place for guns anywhere outside of the military, and keeping our focus on the reduction of incidences of violence involving guns, there are a number of avenues of common ground shared by a vast majority of our population.
And it is these areas of agreement that we must look to in beginning to set the stage for a discussion which is grounded in reason and common sense and not in passion alone. The first of these involves access to weapons with mass-killing capacity. I call these ‘weapons’ in order to distinguish them, at least for me, from firearms. The term weapon is a term of war, and the guns I am referring to are, and continue to be designed as tools to be used in the killing of other human beings and not as tools of responsible hunting or recreational use. Now again, that is my opinion and I am sure some may disagree with me on this account but I will always distinguish between weapons and firearms in this manner.
Secondly, there is near complete agreement on the need for universal and comprehensive background checks for anyone seeking to purchase a firearm. A national database of this information would prohibit many with ill intent from ever being able to obtain a gun, including those with a history of mental illness, domestic violence, or ties to homegrown or international terror groups. Surely this is something we can at least start with.
Secondly it seems we might do well to enact legislation to close all of the loopholes such as those employed through gun shows that allow the buyer to skirt background checks and other regulations. Also, to codify into law some of those regulations currently only in force through executive order such as the banning of ‘bump stocks’ like as the ones used in the Las Vegas shooting which allow the shooter to effectively use a semiautomatic weapon as a fully automatic one due to the ability to fire many shots in rapid succession.
Other considerations are surely the topic of much debate; however, they seem at times to be very divisive issues among many different factions within our population. The question of whether to train and arm individuals within schools, churches, and other public venues is one that incites fierce debate, as does the whole question of how law enforcement statistics seem to point to an inordinately larger focus on people of color when it comes to the amount of arrests as well as the use of deadly force. And while all of these must be a part of any authentic dialog, they are all also extremely difficult topics to even initiate dialog around. Somehow, we must find a way through this incredible maze of emotionally charged issues and concerns in order to begin to address this increasingly grave crisis.
Is there perhaps another way forward other than battling it out over laws, regulations, and the like? For to some extent making minor changes in regulations may begin to make a difference…and common-sense changes to existing laws may decrease the incidence of violence involving guns, making mass killing perhaps more infrequent. But I fear that without an underlying cultural shift towards community over isolation, and towards compassion and kindness over denial and objectification, that a culture and a country steeped in gun ownership will continue to spin off radical and deadly behavior which is unacceptable to all.
We have a culture so deeply in need of healing when it comes to this issue. Which leads me to wonder, is it at all possible that there may be room in our future for true community that is steeped in forgiveness sacrifice, and mercy? And is it possible that a community such as this, coupled with the non-violence practices of Dr King and Mahatma Gandhi might in fact be another consideration waiting to be tried in order to address this problem? Or is that far too idealistic and far too reliant upon faith in the grace and protective cover of the Holy Spirit? After all, those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem knew that danger of the greatest sort lay before them…and yet they went anyway.
…‘these remain…but the greatest of these is love’ wrote the Apostle Paul in concluding the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Church in Corinth. He was referring to faith, hope, and love and the way in which we are called to be as followers of Christ. His admonition that the greatest of these was love and his lifting up of the idea that the way in which we honor our Lord and most clearly reflect the command to love one another, is in fact to cherish and honor each other may perhaps give us a clue as to the way forward in seeking to engage the topic at hand. In this call to love deeply, I believe Paul was giving instruction on how we might begin to pursue deep and abiding social change around issues as difficult as the one we are considering today through the intentional creation of loving community…through our efforts to reveal the ‘kingdom’ Jesus told us was at hand.
It seems as though every time we hear of a school shooting there is someone, or ‘some-ones’, lifted up as heroes…someone who stood up to the terror and said ‘enough, this must stop’. And on occasion that person is successful at saving the lives of some of those in their charge. However all too often and all too tragically that sacrifice comes at the cost of the hero’s own life. That decision, that moment when one decides to stand up against all odds in seeking to give their all for the sake of another is a call incumbent upon every person of faith…and in our own Christian tradition is enshrined in the words of the Gospel of John in Chapter 15 when Jesus tells his disciples, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ But in truth, one person standing up to terror, one loving soul making the ultimate sacrifice for another only brings us to where we are now.
Unless and until that impulse to stand up and be counted as one who values life and love more than personal safety is the natural and normal outgrowth of loving community, until that is the expected behavior of all who together stand for one another and cherish one another…until all who would one day seek to act with violence are found, listened to, embraced, and brought back into loving community and authentic relationship, nothing will change.
It cannot and will not be a simple fix that will eliminate violence at the hand of an angry, or a bitter, or a delusional individual. And even if all guns were gone those same injured and hurting individuals would simply find another way to do their violent deed. But truly a reduction of the ability to procure a weapon for those who are thus afflicted, or who have no business whatsoever being in possession of a firearm is one vital and critical step in beginning to create the space within which holy and just community might take hold and begin to grow.
Learning to listen to one another, learning to cherish one another, and by God trusting in the ability of love and non-violence to triumph over abject and irrational hatred must be the underlying framework of any and all efforts to decrease or diminish the incidence of violent acts one against another.
From there, common sense agreements to reduce access to any and all tools of mass destruction can only add to this holiest of efforts to forge a blessed community that is both worthy of all the heroes who have stood or fallen in our midst, and faithful to the God of all faiths who calls us to lay down our tools of war and together to pound them into tools with which we might finally find our way to live peaceably side by side…there in the gracious garden of Creation which we are all so blessed to live within.
…come. Let us finally learn of the ways of holy love…and blessed community…
An Order for the Lord’s Supper
(Note: ‘Leader’ in regular print, ‘All’ please respond with print that is in bold)
‘a place of hope…engaging gun violence…’
Friends: This is the joyful feast that is offered to all the children of our God! And though our table today is different and not what we might expect as a table of our Lord’s blessing, nonetheless we approach it in order to celebrate the goodness and grace with which our Lord has so richly blessed us, as well as to be reminded of the deep call upon our hearts to serve one another in love, as we diligently seek after blessed community. And as we do, we affirm that we will seek to accept the difficult call to truly engage as a people to stand against all forms of violence but in particular the ravages of gun violence that so afflicts the whole of our life together.
We confess that we are ashamed that it has taken fully a year since the horrific shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and the Declaration of a Universal Day of Prayer for Students for us to deliberately take the time to begin to address this scourge upon our lives and loved ones. We admit that we have stayed quite far away from the discussion of guns and gun violence as it is such a flashpoint for so many within our own community, forgetting that real people and real families are being destroyed almost every day as a result of the harm and deadly injury caused by this violence.
Teach us Lord to seek your Spirit’s guidance and wisdom in challenging gun violence which is so opposed to and so destructive of the community of love to which you have called us. Help us ever to seek the strength to stand as your disciples, called as one to bear witness to love, not hate, unity, not division, courage, not fear in the face of those who would seek to sow terror, death, and destruction. Give us a sure faith that takes you at your word, affirming that by our lives we may usher in your day of blessed and just community in the name of love.
People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.
Lord may we find it in our hearts to stand against violence that seeks to injure or destroy and particularly violence meted out with a gun that senselessly ravages our schools, our churches, our places of work, and in the case of domestic violence – our very homes. May our awareness of and engagement with the ongoing battle between sensible regulations and irrational resistance, and between lawless hatred and blessed community somehow begin to turn the tide in creating a safe and healthy space for us all to live and to love, to grow and to thrive.
Embolden us to bring forth your word and your call for love in the face of opposition from those who hate, those who are fearful, and those who refuse to acknowledge the crisis on our own doorstep. Empower us Lord to set aside all fear as we turn and follow closely the example of selfless love you first set for us. Show us the way to engage with love and courage, and to insist on seeking tirelessly to build loving community, that all our efforts might yield the fruits of peace and the bread shared as one.
This morning’s altar truly is one of our Lord’s tables. It is intended to shock us into acknowledging that gun violence in all its forms, is a serious and deeply harmful illness plaguing our culture and society as a whole. It is intended to be a stark reminder that those who are injured by this scourge are our neighbors and our friends, our children and our grandchildren, our fellow church members and our friends from down on the corner. In truth there are none who are exempt from irrational and random violence at the hand of one intent only on destruction and chaos.
For the preparation of our table today I have taken pictures of normal life being lived…lived as family, as community, as school and neighborhood, and torn them in jagged halves while overlaying them with images of high capacity assault-style weapons and handguns. These pictures represent the foundation blocks of our lives that are randomly torn into pieces by the hatred, terror, or perhaps mental illness of a gunman more often than we care to hear about in the news.
In addition, I have randomly placed empty brass shell casings from a handgun all across the top of our table, not at all dissimilar from those seen strewn across the street or on the floor of a classroom after a deadly killing spree. These here are not dangerous, and are meant only to disturb and perhaps force us to acknowledge that this is something which can no longer be ignored or dismissed in the hope that it will never come close to us or to our loved ones. For it is already here…
But the despair reflected across our table does not have to be the last word or a bearer of only the worst tidings. For the table our Lord invites us to, this table of brokenness, is also capable of becoming a table of blessing and a table of challenge if we have the courage to receive it as such. For it is indeed a table from which we gain sacramental strength and courage, but a table as well from which we are then called to go out and insist that others come to know of love’s saving and redemptive power.
And it is from this table of a place of hope…and indeed challenge… that we will receive the bread and wine of our sacrament this day…a table of challenge to stand up and be counted, a table of challenge to faithfully engage, and a table from which we must begin to lay the foundation for the revealing of the promised day of our Lord, the kingdom of love which Jesus said was already here among us…waiting only I believe, for us to bring it into focus and fullness.
Help us to begin to reverse this maddening trend of tragedy after tragedy with the only response being the desperate wringing of hands. Help us to advocate for common-sense solutions to gun violence as the first fruits of concerned and loving community. And then let us preserve the goodness of those first common steps by working tirelessly for the emergence of compassionate community built upon and grounded in justice and sustained by selfless love and sacrifice. As we look to the true source of all love let us ever affirm that the family of God in its entirety is worthy of God’s love and compassion, that all people have a place at the table of our Lord, and that every soul must be so welcomed to it…for we must begin to find our way into the day of our Lord’s blessed community…a community in which all indeed feel free to come from the east and the west, and from the north and south.
Our Lord and Savior Jesus invites all those who trust in him to come and share this meal which he has prepared for us to receive even from this table of the call to create together a place of hope, as we agree to engage and defeat the scourge of violence that is destroying the very fabric of community. Our Lord invites all, without exception, and beckons us as well towards ever greater awareness and willingness to be vessels of sacrificial love towards all people who suffer from or commit such acts of violence and injury. This table here before us this morning is holy because our Lord has made it so through our recognition of the seeming impossible challenge that it places before us…and because our Lord is always present in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the one cup. Let us reverence this meal shared together in love…amen
As we receive this meal, may our eyes be opened to the great need to address this wanton violence that is so different than our Lord’s intent. Help us to stand together against all gun violence that claims the lives of innocents in our schools, our homes, and in our places of work or play. Give us strength to stand together as we work to build a circle of love around this your table of pain and sorrow, that everyone may come to know of your love and grace. And in so doing, may we all come to know the freedom that comes from trusting in your steadfast love alone. Amen
Responsive Prayer for Change
Gracious God, whose mercy never ends, whose Spirit brings the Kairos moment for change:
We confess our past willingness to abide the deaths of over one million, six hundred thousand souls lost to gun violence in the last 50 years: the children, the parents, the distraught, as well as millions more injured, ruined, orphaned, or widowed.
Help us to comprehend this carnage and not become numb. We give thanks for the long witness of the General Assembly of our Church and for all who are already engaged in preventing gun violence.
We thank you for raising up the students to lead us with marches, walk-outs and a passion born of pain.
We call upon you, Lord; for we have nowhere else to turn. Galvanize all of us, every congregation, every community, every neighborhood. Wake us up throughout the whole of our lives; do not let Christ find us asleep on this watch.
Rather, Lord, grant to all of us, both those of us who own guns and those of us who do not, a unity of purpose to change the national debate on gun violence.
Show us the path. At all the places where you are proclaimed, give us courage to stand against principalities and powers.
Grant us the joy of using the gifts that you provide – energy, intelligence, imagination and love…
…to help our communities and our nation heal from this tragedy and sorrow.
In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
From the 223rd General Assembly, PC(USA), June 2018, Marking 50 Years of Presbyterian Witness to Prevent Gun Violence, Responsive Prayer Adapted by Cheryl and Doug Hunt, Stockton, CA
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God
It is right to give God our thanks and praise
It is right, it is good, it is joyful to be able to give thanks to you, Oh God of mystery and miracle. When there was only darkness, you made light. When we cried out to you from captivity, you claimed us to be your own. When we forgot our love for you, you did not forget us, but sent your prophets to turn us around. Over and over again you renewed your promises…with a bow in the sky, the parting of the sea, bread from heaven and your own beloved Son. And so, we praise you, joining our voices with the songs of the angels and with all those who sing in heaven and on earth saying:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest.
(All please come forward and stand in a circle around the communion ‘table’)
The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and after giving thanks to God, broke it and said: “This is my body, which is for you; do this, remembering me.”
In the same way, he took the cup after supper, and said, “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this, remembering me.” Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.
(Distribution of the bread- all wait to be served before partaking)
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Everyone who comes to me will never be hungry; all who believe in me will never thirst.” (Partake of the bread)
(Distribution of the cup-all wait to be served before partaking)
Jesus said: I am the vine, you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing. This then is the cup of our salvation. (Partake of the cup)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen