Texts: Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 19:14
Novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “If you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world even as you struggle to endure it” (The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor). Well said, but this has been one tough week to “cherish the world.”
I had just finished my sermon for today when the news flashed the faces of 19 children and 2 teachers--both teachers younger than my two adult children--who had been shot in their Texas elementary school classroom. Even though we are a week away from the festival of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit grabbed me by the nape of the neck and said, “Gary, preach the sermon you have just finished later; you’ve got another sermon to preach today.”
I pray that this will be my last sermon that addresses the epidemic of gun violence in America. My first sermon on the subject was in May, 1981, less than a year after I was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor. Pope John Paul II had just been shot in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. I was incensed about the prevalence of gun violence throughout the world and I made my views known that Sunday morning. In a congregation filled with life-long hunters, gun collectors, and gun lovers, to say that my sermon was not received well would be a serious understatement.
Since that shooting, I have lost track of gun violence incidents across the world and particularly in our land. Education Week reports that there have been 27 school shootings with injuries or deaths so far in 2022 and we are not even at the midway point of the year.
Whenever I have preached or spoken on the topic of gun violence, I have had people I love and respect tell me, in effect, “Gary, you need to stay in your preaching lane and just talk about Jesus.” I am often told why, for safety sake, we must arm ourselves and arm our teachers. I am often lectured about the slippery slope of even the most modest gun regulation because it will surely lead to the erosion of our Second Amendment rights. I often pull up behind cars with bumper stickers that remind me that guns don’t kill children in classrooms, people do.
Why did it take yet one more shooting in a Texas town I have never heard of for me to stand up here this morning and say, “Enough!” I don’t know. I could have just as easily preached this sermon after receiving a recent message from leaders in the Presbyterian church in our region. They write: Grace to you and peace in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, We who are leaders of the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic join our voices in lament with all those who have been shocked and grieved by the attacks and mass murders last weekend, first, at the supermarket in Buffalo, New York, where the assailant made a particular point of singling out Black women and men as his targets, and, second, at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Orange County, California, where members of a Taiwanese congregation were attacked, too many dying at the hands of a fellow Taiwanese. We continue to grieve the sins of racism and white supremacy that bedevil American society and plague too many, both those who bear the brunt of these evils and those who act in such a way as to perpetuate abuse.
And yet, it took another elementary school shooting to bring me to my feet today. Now, I have mixed memories of my elementary school days. These memories include bringing a blanket with me to use during drills to prepare for a nuclear incident. School drills continue today, but they are no longer drills to prepare for a nuclear disaster. They are drills to prepare young school children for an active shooter. Are such drills really necessary? Ask that questions to the parents and grandparents of the children and youth at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, Parkland and Ulvade, and list of schools goes on and on.
The first comment I read after learning of the Texas elementary school shooting was from the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, New Testament professor at Austin Theological Seminary. Margaret wrote, “The murder of 19 children is NOT a tragedy. It is an atrocity.”
The next comment I read was from the Rev. Amos Disasa, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dallas. His lament is my lament and I suspect is your lament:
Tender they lie,
numbered to nineteen
fated to find eternal rest
where innocence was once expressed
during hopscotch and homeroom.
Their right to carry
on with the final days of school
undisturbed by evil, GONE.
Tender they lie,
waiting for black Texas night
to bury the devil of this day,
Too soon to say resurrection—
stolen hope heals the slowest, or never.
We grieve for parents in Uvalde
and for us, so quick to lament what
we fail to prevent.
Tender they lie,
the prayers we spill
with nowhere to go.
On this night there are no survivors.
Only creation quivers
as God’s children weep and whisper
mercy mercy mercy.
Lord be tender
hear our prayer. Amen.
The first voice from Scripture that shouted out to me after this atrocity was that of the prophet Jeremiah as he cries out: “The LORD proclaims: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and wailing. It’s Rachel crying for her children; she refuses to be consoled, because her children are no more” (Jer. 31:15).
If there is one truth we can hold in common about the shooting in Ulvade, it is the harsh truth spoken by the prophet, “her children are no more.” Quickly, though, what we hold in common disappears after each shooting, and we head to our political corners. From our safe space, we point out flaws in each other’s opinion and join in the elected leader mantra, offering our “thoughts and prayers.”
Actually, I find that phrase to be grossly insufficient and insult to both nouns. Surely, addressing gun violence in our land demands our very best thinking. And that does not mean thinking about violent incidents in Buffalo, California and Ulvade for a full news cycle and then getting on with our lives.
I do not believe that there is a Republican, Democrat, or Independent parent who wants to fear that their children or grandchild may be shot in school tomorrow or in church today. And, yet, this unnamable fear keeps proving itself as real. I do not possess the wisdom on how best to end or even to curtail this violent epidemic. I do, though, believe that our “thoughts” demand more of us than a morose acceptance that there is nothing that can be done as we make our cowardly crawl into our entrenched political corner.
“Thoughts and prayers.” The Christian faith demands of us not only good thinking, but faithful praying. When the Apostle Paul implores us to “pray without ceasing,” he is not suggesting that prayer is a spiritual placebo, something for us to do when there is really nothing that we can actually do.
For Paul, prayer is the catalyst that connects us with God and God’s Spirit, the spiritual bridge that allows us to see beyond where we are stuck now. Prayer reminds us that God alone is Lord of heaven and earth and that God has no use for idols, things we worship as sacrosanct when they are not, things like guns. The theologian, Miroslav Volf writes words that ring with damning truth after these latest incidents of gun violence: “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.”
Earlier this week, I shared words from a mentor in my faith, the Rev. Tom Mainor. Tom wrote:“Nineteen Children and two Uvalde teachers, embracing life, excited about learning and the future . . . their lives cut short in the midst of doing those wonderful things. The call for more prayers is again abundant. My mother often said, ‘You can pray as though it’s up to God, but you need to work as though it’s up to you’! It’s up to us!!!”
After Jeremiah cried out to me this week, Jesus took his turn. After losing his temper with his disciples for not welcoming children, protecting children, celebrating children, he tells them, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the reign of God.” Another way to capture the words of Jesus to his followers is with one word: “Enough!” Enough ignoring the most vulnerable in your midst. Enough acting as if your life is of more value that someone who you have been taught is less than you. Enough tossing out “thoughts and prayers” when you intend to do nothing to change what must be changed.
Lamenting with Jeremiah and listening to the charge of Jesus, may this be the day that you and I not only say, “Enough,” we also act on it.
“Enough”excuses why people with good minds, good hearts, and good sense cannot find ways to reduce or end gun violence in our nation, our schools, our supermarkets, our places of worship, our homes.
“Enough” excuses from political leaders why this is an issue best left to their oversight and yet who refuse to exercise such oversight.
“Enough” excuses why our country cannot provide affordable mental health care for all who are in deep need and even suicidal, for whom quick access to guns is far too prevalent.
“Enough” excuses why we cannot engage in community and church conversations around gun violence with people whose views are in opposition to ours and yet whose views are held with equal conviction.
“So, what do you want us to do, Gary?” I want all of us to think and pray and then get involved and stay involved and do not let anyone convince you that there is nothing that can be done. I want us to draw on the wisdom of the late John Lewis who after he nearly died in Selma, encouraged people of good will and good faith to get in “good trouble.” Listen to John for more than five minutes and he would say, “Speak up, speak out, get in the way.”
What do I want us to do about gun violence in America? I want us to say: “Enough.” I want us to get in “good trouble.” I want us to speak up, speak out, get in the way.
I plan to do just that. I welcome anyone who wants to join me.