This morning my sermon - delivered at both University Park Church and Sunnyside Church - reflected on the violent events this week in Oregon and Connecticut. You can download a podcast of the sermon here:
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Note: In the prepared notes for this sermon, as in the audio, I talked about the 911 call made by a student at Virginia Tech after the shootings there in 2007 but in the delivery of the sermon I inadvertently said you could listen to the call when I actually meant you could read the transcript from The Washington Post's account. I wanted to clarify this.
The text of the sermon as prepared for delivery is below:
Nelson Mandela has said: "Safety and security don't just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear."
This afternoon we’ll gather together as the people of University Park Church and Sunnyside Church to celebrate the holiday season.
It is worth remembering that the last time our two congregations gathered together – for a summer BBQ – we bowed our heads and prayed for the victims of the Colorado shootings.
This has been a difficult week. Between our two churches parishioners experienced the Clackamas Town Center shooting in very real ways. One member had a tenant who was shot at (the bullet went through her coat). Another had a niece in the mall at the time. A third was friends with Cindy Yuille, one of the victims.
After the shooting at Clackamas Town Center, a friend of mine wrote on Facebook:
There is no way I could be a pastor. You would be called upon to answer utterly unanswerable questions like why bad things happen to good people, or why God would let the innocent suffer: toddlers with cancer or the entire city of New Orleans turned upside down by a hurricane.
Then came Friday and the slaughter of innocents at Sandy Hook. Let me confess that this is now the fifth version of the sermon I intended to give and what I preach today is in no way similar to the Advent message I had hoped to offer.
In the aftermath of the Clackamas Town Center shooting, I shared on Facebook and my blog the words I shared with you from my July 22nd sermon. Let me repeat a short bit of what I said then again now:
Our schools and churches and movie theaters are places we should expect to be safe. In these places we worship, we learn and we are entertained. But in recent years all these places -- along with shopping malls and restaurants and public parks -- have in moments of terror become killing fields as people with often-great mental instability who have access to weapons meant for battlefields open fire on innocent crowds causing mass deaths…
As the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church state: "In the name of Christ, who came so that persons might know abundant life, we call upon the church to affirm its faith through vigorous efforts to curb and eliminate gun violence…"
Gun violence is contrary to the will of God, and thus we are called to do what we can to change the reality of our circumstances so that moviegoers and school children no longer have to be afraid of living in a violent world. We must join with the National Council of Churches and other people of faith, including the inter-faith community, to press our government to make this nation stronger for us all in ways that preserve individual freedoms but also protect the common good.
We have, it has been said, been visited by evil this week.
As a pastor, I am tasked with the responsibility of trying to help us all make some sense of out the senselessness of the last week but like you I am left with more questions than answers. This I know, however: Guns are too accessible and powerful and we do not do enough to provide mental health care in this nation. This is not the world that God intended or intends for us.
The Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, my doctoral advisor at Chicago Theological Seminary, wrote in The Washington Post Friday that:
It’s the worst mistake in the world to say gun control today can be summarized as a “policy debate.”
The epidemic of mass shootings in the United States is a moral and religious catastrophe. God weeps with the pain of these parents whose children were just executed, the pain of spouses and relatives of the staff and the whole community. But God also weeps over the moral stupidity of this country that is weakening gun laws instead of strengthening them, and buying more guns despite an epidemic of mass shootings in places like schools, movie theatres, and malls.
Where is God in this moment? God is weeping for humanity and calling on us to change the evidence of our times. In response to the shooting at Virginia Tech, Dr. Thistlethwaite wrote: “There are those in the Christian faith who will say of any tragedy that it is still “part of God’s plan.” Such a theology does not respect how far senseless violence is from God and it does not let people fully grieve, let alone acknowledge the grief of God at stupid, senseless loss. This isn’t God’s plan—this is sin, this is evil, this is turning away from everything that God wills for human flourishing.”
As often happens when I speak out in public on a controversial issue, people speak back to me through Facebook posts, e-mails and phone calls.
One such e-mail came from Lori Hass of Richmond, Virginia who e-mailed to thank me for speaking out for gun control. She wrote:
I became involved in gun violence prevention efforts in 2007 after my 19 yr old daughter was shot and injured while in french class at Va Tech – 11 of her classmates and her teacher were shot and killed – she was among the 7 who survived from her classroom. I say prayers every day in gratitude that my family is not suffering the pain and anguish that the families of those 32 students and staff killed that day suffer and continue to suffer each and every day since. And, I say prayers for the 34 people who are murdered EACH & EVERY day in this country because of our lax gun laws.
The text of the chilling 911 call made by Emily Hass from under her desk during the Virginia Tech shooting is available online. You can hear her quietly report to the police that a shooter has wounded people in her class. He leaves, but returns. Emily is shot in the head.
Lori Hass and I talked on the phone yesterday. Her daughter has recovered from the gunshot she received and Lori has dedicated her life to working to prevent gun violence, and also to working with those who survive it. She has traveled to mass shooting sites at Aurora and Oak Creek to meet with victims of gun violence, providing comfort and support. “Please share my prayers, concerns and condolences with the families of those killed and wounded and for the Portland community at large. The ripple effect of gun violence is broad reaching. Many persons in that mall will have difficulties for years to come and some may feel guilt and shame for those feelings. I will pray for them also,” she wrote in her initial e-mail to me.
Voices that call for calm or reflection or patience in such moments are confounding to me. We hear those same voices in each tragedy and sadly those that often call for patience are really hoping for inaction. In the Christian tradition, we follow people like John the Baptist and Jesus, people who showed such impatience with the world that they were put to death for their ministry. If there is hope in the world, and I believe there is, it is in that God envisioned for us the Kingdom, not in some far off place but in the here and now, and we can be instruments of God’s will in bending the earth toward justice because justice is the natural order that God intends. Placing our faith on God means abandoning our trust in weapons.
Garry Wills, the American historian and Catholic writer, notes that: “The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”
I agree with the national officers of the United Church of Christ who said in a joint message this weekend:
As we grieve we are aware that this kind of tragedy happens over and over again in this country where for some the gun has become God. We must renew our efforts to control guns and thereby prevent violent tragedies such as this. We must learn how to place our trust in God, not in arms. We must turn swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.
Newtown United Methodist Church in Sandy Hook, within walking distance from the school, quickly became an emergency response center as family members and first responders congregated there in the moments and hours after the terror unfolded. New York Area Bishop Martin McLee, whose office oversees the Newtown community, issued a statement yesterday that read in part:
…Newtown UMC, will host a prayer vigil this evening. Friends, in the midst of this tragedy draw closer to your loved ones, especially the children. Reassure them of God’s love and your love. While we cannot undo this carnage, we can respond with the message of hope and healing that our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ offers to us all. Through the tears of a nation, remember the promise of the Psalmist:
“Weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5.)
The grief of this tragedy is still unfolding. However, in this Advent Season of hope and love, let us remember the Christ Child and the promise of the manger.
O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel.