Homily at the September Requiem for Those Who Died By Gun Violence
Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash
When you gathered in June, (I believe it was the first of these monthly Requiems for victims of gun violence), you spoke the name of Meaghan Burns in this sacred place. She is one of Western Massachusetts’ own. I confirmed her five years ago at St. James in Greenfield. She went on to serve her country in the Navy. She was stationed in Virginia. On the night of her death she went out to dinner with another sailor who had recently broken up with her boyfriend. As they left the restaurant, the ex-boyfriend shot them both dead and then turned the weapon on himself.
Friends, the Body of Christ is bleeding. The public health crisis of gun violence is exactly that – a crisis. A clear and present crisis. It is not far away. It is here. And it demands a response on so many fronts. Including that of faith communities. Bruce Springsteen has a song about gun violence called “Forty One Shots.” One of the lyrics is,
“We are baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood.”
The Body of Christ is bleeding. In a few minutes we will say the names of 1000 of the more than 3000 people who died last month in gun violence in our United States. As we do it, we are doing what faithful women did 2000 years ago at the cross of Jesus. They were going there in sorrow, to bear a witness of love to the one who was dying.
In one of those gospel accounts about the women at the Cross, there is a man with them -the one called the beloved disciple. With his dying breath, Jesus says to Mary, his mother, “Behold your son.” To the beloved disciple he says, “Behold your mother.”
When Jesus does that, he unites all of humanity in the blood of the Cross. We are truly brother and sister to each other. When we say these names, we are naming our brothers and sisters. We are baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood.
And what happened after they went to the cross and after they went to the tomb? What happened after they spoke the name of the dead? The dead one appeared to them and they launched the greatest mission of mercy, compassion and hope that the world had ever seen. Their baptism in the water and the blood inspired multitudes to say that the world cannot stay the same. They refused to say, ‘it is what it is.” The world holds the possibilities of transformation, of new life, and of a new way of being. Or as the royal wedding preacher Michael Curry constantly reminds us, “if it is not about Love, it is not about God.”
I have a wonderful spiritual director. Sometimes I go to her feeling discouraged. And she says to me “you are capable of more than you think you are.”
Photo: M. Tuck
Now we say the names of the victims of the public health crisis of gun violence aloud. We go to the place of the dead. We acknowledge them as our brothers and sisters. We state clearly that the Body of Christ is bleeding. And that we are baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood. And perhaps we will hear the dead whispering back to us. “You are capable of more than you think you are.”
For those interested in doing a similar service, click here to request an updated list of names each month.
The following sermon was given this morning at the annual Renewal of Vows and Blessing of Oils at Christ Church Cathedral.
Welcome. Thank you for taking time away from sermon prep, acolyte wrangling, bulletin proof-reading, pastoral care and answering questions about when IS the Easter Service, to come together in mutual support of one another in ministry.
Lutherans and UCC. Some of our liturgical language may be different, but the
mission is the same. Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope. When so much
in our world seems to be coming apart, we are coming together. I am grateful
Renewal of vows makes me think of Holy Week
1998. Betsy and I and our very young children were at Holy Innocents in
Highland Falls New York and I was the Episcopal West Point chaplain. We had a
Holy Week evening service in the church with only the candles on the altar for
our light. At that service most of the congregation were West Point cadets and
we all stood around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer. Grace, four years
old, stood next to me at the altar, her chin level with the top of the altar.
She was captivated by the scene. For her it was magical and mystical. Looking
out at everyone, looking at me leading prayer. Afterwards Betsy asked Grace
“Did you like being up at the altar with daddy?” To which Grace responded “Oh
yes, mommy. I loved it. I felt just like a pwiest!”
Betsy said, “Would you like to be a priest someday?” Grace was very clear in
her answer. “Oh no, mommy. I want to stack the groceries at the supermarket.
That’s a cool job.”
reminder on the day we renew our vows as ordained leaders in the church.
veteran bishops for coaches. A question my coach would ask me in every session
was “why did your diocese choose you?” It is a way of getting clarity and
setting priorities. I think it was because I said a lot about social justice
and about trying new things in ministry. 50 new things even if 49 fail. And
there is one more. After the election, one of our church leaders said to me:
“You know, bishop, no one in my parish was going to vote for you when the slate
was announced. You were the only candidate with a doctorate (in ministry) and
we knew we didn’t need some academic lecturing us in something abstract when
the needs are so real.” Now that is not my perspective but it was his. And then
he added “But when we went to the walk-abouts and you were asked questions, you
would leave the stage and come into the middle aisle and answer the questions
from there. From where the people were. That night in the parking lot, we all
decided we were voting for you.”
wasn’t because of what I said. No great insights or pearls of wisdom changed
their minds. It was being in the midst of the people. Going to where they are.
That’s what I will be praying about today when
I renew my vows.
you? Priest, minister, deacon. The Holy Spirit, working through so many people
around you and through sponsoring parishes and commissions on ministry, called
you. Maybe it was a few years ago or maybe it was forty. Why did they choose
you? In all your quirky uniqueness. Why did they choose you?
made you say yes?
are thinking about that, let me provide a structure for your particular answer.
Budde is the Bishop of Washington D.C. She points out how often the Bible
contains a “so that” statement. Here are a few examples:
Matthew 5:16 Let your light shine before others, SO THAT they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, SO THAT you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, SO THAT everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
ordained so that… What comes next? I hope you answer that with something
spectacular. Something worth giving your life to.
A couple of
weeks ago, I put that question to a few of our clergy in an email. Here is what
I will renew my vows SO THAT I can offer my spiritual gifts to a community of faith that has richly blessed me and that helps me to grow in ways that matter.
I will renew my vows SO THAT I might share and testify to the love that saved me and made me and holds me.
I will renew my vows SO THAT the hope and justice of God in Christ would be made known.
called by God, loved by Christ SO THAT we may understand the power of His
ordained SO THAT I could help spread the light and hope of Christ.
What is it
for you? I was ordained so that…
think of your answers I’m going to ramble on about a couple of other things.
Whatever that great, holy, Jesus-centered,
Holy Spirit inspired statement is for you, know that to get there we need to
cultivate resilience, and persistence, or what some in leadership circles are referring
to as “grit.”
quote from the wise Mariann Budde. It is a long quote and we all know you
should never use a long quote in a sermon. So don’t tell the bishop.
we need resilience. Because we are called to lead others from where they are
now, as a body, to where God is calling us, a preferred future or a necessary
sacrifice. That process, by definition, invokes resistance. Resistance is not
all bad; nor is all change good. As a result, those of us called to lead have
no choice but to live and move and have our being in what might be called ‘the
messy middle.’ That place where nothing is clear, where what you thought was a
God inspired idea goes nowhere, where those who called you to lead are now
resisting you with everything they’ve got, and it occurs to you that working as
a barista in your neighborhood coffee shop seems like a more fruitful place for
ministry than the church.” Or you long to stack the groceries in the
happens, not if, when that happens, have friends, deep friends, to confide in.
And a disciplined prayer life. And maybe some scripture verses that can serve
as a mantra. Like Paul’s in the second letter to that conflicted, confused,
hungry for the Spirit community in Corinth. “Since it is God’s mercy that we
are engaged in ministry, we do not lose heart.” Or in Genesis, Jacob wrestling
with that angel “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Now for a
few minutes on today’s gospel. I won’t be long. I know not all the Holy Week
bulletins are done.
I chose the
Gospel about what Walter Brueggemann calls “the riot in the Temple.” I chose it
because I believe it is a pivotal part of the Holy Week story and it gets
overlooked. And I think it is a key story for the ministry we share.
I just learned
a few days ago that the Cathedral in Connecticut is doing something new and
meaningful with this story. On Palm Sunday we begin with the triumphant entry
into Jerusalem and then at the time for the Gospel we read the Passion which
continues the story beginning with the Last Supper. We go from the hosannas of
the crowd to Jesus agonizing over his impending death. We leave out a key part
of the story that explains this very severe change of tone. The riot in the
temple. Here’s what Connecticut is doing. The usual opening of the service with
the entry into Jerusalem. Then at the time of the Gospel the story of the riot
in the Temple is read. And then at the very end of the service, the Passion is
read and the congregation leaves in silence to continue their Holy Week
suffers too from a superficial understanding. How often has this passage been
used as “you see Jesus is human like us. He got angry.” The same way the Martha
and Mary story gets reduced to “we all need to balance out our busy Martha
lives with Mary-like contemplation.” We interpret the verse this way SO THAT we
don’t have to acknowledge the social revolution Jesus began in bringing women
into the male-only circle of religious thinkers.
has meanings so deep that the four evangelists take three approaches to it.
Mark and Luke just tell it and then go right away to the chief priests looking
for a way to kill him. John uses it to illustrate the scripture “Zeal for your
house will consume me.” And an early reference to the Resurrection. Only
Matthew follows the Temple cleansing with healing stories. Throwing over tables
creating a space for healing. I will come back to that. But the heart of it was
an unjust sacrificial system that made demands on the poor. In words and with
very clear action, Jesus drew our attention to a societal problem and acted on
it. Jesus didn’t just offer thoughts and prayers. He overthrew tables. He
disrupted the system. A system that many believed to be sacred.
On this day
in which we renew our vows, I will ask another question: Do you ever feel like
throwing over some tables?
I feel like throwing over.
The public health crisis of gun violence. 97 people a day die from gun violence in the United States. Many from suicide. Several children every day from accidents. Many in our urban communities as victims of what Michael Curry calls the “Unholy Trinity” of racism, poverty and guns. And some in our growing number of mass shootings – the ones that get our attention. America loves her guns and her guns are killing her loved ones. Many loved the theology and culture and economy of the Temple sacrifices but that did not stop Jesus.
Then there is crisis of creation around climate change. I could quote our own Margaret Bullitt Jonas on this but in the spirit of ecumenism I will go with Pope Francis: “Human induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity. In this core moral space, the world’s religions play a very vital role.” If we commit to passing the faith down from generation to generation then we have to commit to a sustainable island home for future generations.
The plight of immigrants in our immigrant nation. Children in cages at the border. Lucio Perez in sanctuary at the UCC Church in Amherst for a year and a half, forced to live apart from his wife and their four children. What would the Jesus we follow- the table over thrower- tell us to do about that?
ordination of a bishop in the Episcopal Church, eight questions are asked and
answered. One is “will you shake up the conscience of your people?” Another is
“will you defend those who have no helper?”
are never closely adequate to the depth and expanse of the question. Thank you
for all the times you have inspired me in this work of overturning tables.
And we do
this not just as a voice crying out in the wilderness, not out of righteous
anger, but as Matthew makes clear, SO THAT healing becomes possible. The royal
wedding preacher says “WE are the Jesus Movement that is out to change the
world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it.”
On this day, as we renew our ordination vows, let’s return to that wisdom of Paul. Since it is God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. And as my go-to-theologian Walter Brueggemann adds “Do not lose heart. God has not quit, and will not until our joy is reflective of God’s own.”
On December 16, 2012 there was a powerful prayer service held at the Washington National Cathedral in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The Dean, Gary Hall, preached “Enough is enough. As followers of Jesus, we have the moral obligation to stand for and with the victims and to work to end it. We have tolerated school shootings, mall shootings, theater shootings, sniper shootings, workplace shootings, temple and church shootings, urban neighborhood shootings far too long… The gun lobby is strong but it is no match for the cross lobby.”
On the day after the slaughter in Oregon, as our prayers go out to the victims and their families, it feels like the gun lobby is winning.
According to VOX, yesterday was the latest in 986 mass shootings in the United States since Sandy Hook (a mass shooting is defined as one in which four or more people are shot.)
It feels like the gun lobby is winning.
But we have been here before. After the death of Jesus, it felt like all was lost. The great dream of the Kingdom of God seemed over. Even the Resurrection of Jesus did not restore hope at first. In Mark’s Gospel, after the disciples are told at the empty tomb that Jesus is risen and they should go and tell this good news, they scatter. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mark 16:8).” The Gospel ends there.
We know they overcame their fear at Pentecost and began a movement that went out to all the world. Although our churches throughout history have been (and continue to be) deeply flawed, the Jesus Movement is still the greatest expression of mercy, compassion and hope the world has ever seen.
It feels like the gun lobby is winning.
The Church offers sincere prayer-filled moments of silence for the victims, but the time for silence is over.
Let’s get behind our President who says “there is a gun for roughly every man, woman and child in America. So how can you with a straight face make the argument that more guns make us safer?”
In Massachusetts we have some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, but we can do better. Ask your elected representatives why the proposal to limit the purchase of guns to “one gun per person per month” was voted down even though that would reduce gun trafficking.
If you are an NRA member, why are you being silent on this? Why do you let the Wayne LaPierres of the world speak for you?
I want to believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby, and that people of faith can make a difference. Another moment of silent prayer will not make it so. It’s time to make noise. Proclaim God’s dream of nonviolence. Proclaim it boldly and with endless hope.
CHARLESTON, SC – JUNE 18: People stand outside the Emanuel AME Church after a mass shooting at the church that killed nine people on June 18, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina. A 21-year-old suspect, Dylann Roof of Lexington, South Carolina, was arrersted Thursday during a traffic stop. Emanuel AME Church is one of the oldest in the South. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
We Americans are so busy. We are time poor. Let us take a moment to let our souls catch up to our bodies, to reflect and to pray:
Nine people were killed in church by a man with a gun given to him by his uncle for his birthday. He had several magazines worth of bullets. (Silence.)
A five year old child was saved by playing dead. This happened in the United States of America in 2015. (silence)
Gun companies have made record profits since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. (Silence)
In the State of the Union Address in January 2013, the President, referring to the Sandy Hook massacre, shouted several times “they deserve a vote. ” Congress has done nothing. (Silence)
Over 30,000 people a year die from gun violence in the USA every year. (Silence)
“With God, all things are possible.” Matthew 19: 26. (silence)
I’m so blessed to be at this combined service with The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany and Christ the King Lutheran. Pastor Nathaniel is doing wonderful work shepherding both of your congregations. Thank you to everyone who have come together in faith and made some sacrifices for this experiment to proceed. You have the support of the staffs of two bishops, mine and my friend, Jim Hazelwood. We are here for you as our always creative and dynamic God does a new thing.
Knowing I would be preaching for Episcopalians and Lutherans today, naturally I did some research on what Martin Luther had to say about Epiphany. I discovered a sermon from 1522. The sermon goes on for twenty-five pages of small print. Even if he channeled his inner New Yorker and spoke at my speed, that sermon would take at least an hour. Nathaniel, is that how long Lutherans preach?
Episcopalians have a hard time sitting still for long sermons, but we do love liturgical traditions. Epiphany gets celebrated with more pomp and circumstance around the world that it does in the U.S., with the liturgy in Australia’s Anglican Church standing out. There they combine Epiphany with the baptism of the Jesus that occurs the following Sunday. The congregation gathers around a swimming pool and a cross is thrown into the pool by the “senior ecclesiastic present” who should be “wearing a cope.” The children jump into the pool and attempt to “find Jesus.” Someone emerges from the water with Jesus and the liturgy continues. If you want to try that next year, I have a cope to lend Nathaniel.
I’m not going to quote from Martin Luther’s hour long sermon on the Epiphany, but I will read from this plaque that hangs in my living room. It is quote from Martin Luther and it will lead me into some reflections on Epiphany.
“This life is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness. Not health, but healing. Not being but becoming. Not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished but it is going on. This is not the end but it is the road.” Keep Luther’s theology in mind as we look at the magi, at King Herod, and then at the power the Christ child and vulnerability of children. I promise we will do this in less than an hour.
The magi. Although we have some great music calling them “kings”, the scripture is clear they are not kings. They are magi and the word, “magi” comes from “magician.” These were astrologers who searched the sky for God’s plans. They were seen as quacks and charlatans by the Jewish leaders. There is a rabbi who lived around the time of the rabbi Jesus who wrote: “He who learns from a magi is worthy of death.” The only other time the word “magi” appears in the bible is in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter says of Simon the Magi: “He is in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” Yes, the readers of this story would be shocked that magi came to see and worship Jesus.
But this only continues a theme that runs throughout Matthew’s gospel. Throughout the gospel, over and over again, the least likely people are saved by Jesus – the hated tax collectors, despised Roman soldiers, Gentiles. Matthew does this to make a powerful point: no one is out of reach of God’s love. No one. Not you. Not me. It is the great reversal caused by grace. In Luther’s words, “it is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness. Not health but healing.”
Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Amiens, France – Three Wise Men Visit King Herod
Now to Herod. Have you noticed that we never include Herod in the Christmas Pageant? We hear about the Roman Emperor calling for “all the world to be registered”, but we don’t hear about the Emperor’s puppet in Israel, King Herod. We don’t want to spoil a magical and mystical Christmas Eve by bringing in this tyrant. But Matthew wants us to know he is there. You will see why in a moment.
Herod was not just any king. He was among the most blood-thirsty. He killed at least one wife and several sons because he saw them as a threat to the throne. He had forty of the most popular people in Jerusalem arrested with the orders that they were to stay in jail and be killed on the day he died. That way someone would be crying on the day of his death. Right after the Epiphany story ends, Herod orders the death of every child two years old and under, in and around Bethlehem – what we call the death of the Holy Innocents.
This stands in sharp contrast to a new king of a different kind of kingdom. Matthew draws that contrast
Les Rois Mages – The three Wise Men
through the gifts the magi bring – gold, frankincense and myrrh. The 60th Chapter of Isaiah says frankincense and gold are to be brought at the time of salvation, but there is no mention of myrrh. The magi add it. Myrrh was an aloe used to anoint a dead body. Why bring that to a new-born? Matthew does this to contrast Jesus with Herod. Herod makes others sacrifice and die for him. Jesus, the non-violent bringer of peace, will die for us. This king – Christ the King as our Lutheran Church is named – will sacrifice for his people. All is reversed.
The Epiphany story has inspired hymns, poems, various traditions in cultures throughout the world, sermons long and short. But perhaps no one expressed the great reversal, the grace-filled choice we have before us now, better than the poet W.H. Auden who wrote “To discover how to be human now/is the reason we follow this star.”
We can have the way of Herod – a way based on self- aggrandizing power, greed, cynicism and death-dealing violence. Or, we can discover how to be human now and follow the way of Jesus – mercy, compassion and hope. The magi understand. They “go home by a different road.” Some say the closer translation in Matthew is they went home by a different “way.” Their choice was both geographical and metaphorical.
We have spent the past several weeks preaching and singing and praying about the Child – the Christ Child – preparing for him, hearing the “good news of great joy” at his birth, witnessing the “homage” of the magi and the incredible courage of the refugees Mary and Joseph as they take him out of Herod’s death trap to safety in Egypt. Next week we will hear about the grown-up Jesus. So maybe now we need to spend a moment with the Child and with the children, our children.
Since the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School two years ago, there have been 95 school shootings. The death of the Holy Innocents continues. Ninety per cent of Americans want universal background checks on gun sales and nothing has happened.
One in five children in the prosperous Commonwealth of Massachusetts live in food – insecure homes. The number of children who are hungry throughout the world is a number so large I can’t begin to get my head around it. What I can get my head around is that the babies home we support in Mampong, Ghana has had its government funding of food cut off and when their director, the saintly Maggie Addai, was here in Massachusetts this summer and my wife Betsy asked her what she needed for the babies home she said “food.”
Ninety-seven per cent of scientists say we are heading towards climate change disaster unless we act soon. The window for stopping or slowing climate change is closing fast. The worst effects of climate change probably won’t happen in the lifetimes of the people gathered in this church. But what will happen in the lifetimes of our children?
W.H. Auden was right. There is an old way of living. Herod knew that way well. But you and I have chosen to follow the star. We have chosen a path of discovery, a new way of being human now. It is Jesus’ way of imagination, creativity and the dynamic grace of the Living God – the way of mercy, compassion and hope.
I’m still short of Luther’s hour long sermon on Epiphany so I’m going to end with a portion of one of my favorite prayers. It is written by Daniel Berrigan and it is called “The Advent Credo” but I think he misnamed it. It should be the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany Credo.
“It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss. This is true: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
“It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger, and poverty, death and destruction. This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
“It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever. This is true: unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be Wonderful Councilor, Mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of Peace.
“This is not true that we are simply victims of the powers who seek to rule the world. This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo, I am with you, even until the end of the world.
“So let us go forth in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ- the life of the world.”