You’ve heard it said: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” I was sorely tempted to stand up here and repeat that line 355 times – one time for each of the 355 mass shootings this past year in this country, a mass shooting defined as one where there have been four or more victims. Can you imagine me up here reciting that bromide 355 times over? Thinking and praying are great, but isn’t there something the idiot politicians who are uttering that line can do?
I am angry and I’ll admit it. I’m angry that we have an average of one mass shooting each day in this country. I’m angry that the annual death toll by gunfire in this country is over 30,000 women, men, and children. While murder by gunfire is horribly high and out of control, just as significant is that suicide by gunfire accounts for more than 18,000 of those deaths. Guns are everywhere in this nation, and I for one want there to be something done about it. Along with many I’ve come to despise the NRA, all it stands for, and all the money it spends in lobbying legislators throughout the nation. Atbd thanks, in no small part to NRA propaganda, close to 75% of U.S. voters oppose gun control.
Some little known facts about me: I once-upon-a-time taught riflery and gun safety to young kids at a YMCA summer camp. I actually know how to handle a gun. I even spent a summer working in the gun department at a sporting-goods store, and I was good at selling hand guns. Then there was the time someone from our own community here at St. Paul enrolled me in a course to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon – this back in the day when because of my work with the ELCA Human Sexuality Studies Task Force the FBI had indentified me as a possible victim of hate crime. I actually did considered buying a weapon in order to protect myself. It’s funny what fear does to one. But fear too has kept me from owning a gun. I know the depths that can drive one to the impulsive action of picking up a gun and bringing the darkness to a swift and comparatively painless close. I’ve had a family member die from suicide by gun. And one of my closest buddies is in the military, trained to use a gun to kill, and I respect and love him nonetheless. So you see, I have an ambiguous relationship with guns.
Oh, but I’m so angry and at so many. Yes, I would like to string up the politicians and preachers who blather about their “thoughts and prayers” being “with the victims and their families” but who strongly resist any suggestion that this whole gun thing is way out of control. I absolutely loathe with no small loathing those who hold to some “insurrection idea” of the Second Amendment – that the right being upheld in that Amendment is the right of the people to arm themselves for the occasion when they might need to rise up in rebellion against the government. I would like for those people to be swiftly removed to another planet. And then there are those who think that gun ownership is fundamental to being an American Christian. On the one-time God and Guns website there was a “Statement of Faith about Weapons,” one that went in part “We believe that the sword was the choice weapon in the days of Christ and is equal to a firearm today. We believe Satan’s trap is to get people to believe ‘God will protect them’ so that when He doesn’t they become mad at God and lose their faith. We believe it’s a God given right to protect yourself and your loved ones.” How’s that for twisted logic? But there’s more: various God and Guns podcasts state that Christians should arm themselves for the apocalypse – that it is not only their right but their God-given duty to do so. I find myself thinking that those who’ve signed on to such nonsense might just deserve a gun accident to happen right in their own homes. And then there’s that so-called Christian Pastor, a total fool if there ever was one, who actively advocates for genocide against gay people so that homosexuality be eradicated by Christmas. Makes me wonder again if I shouldn’t have a gun for that day when some lunatic Christian comes hunting for me because I’m a gay pastor – or at least wear a bullet-proof vest when I’m up here in front and an easy target – too, I could have a gun stashed up here in the pulpit ready to defend myself – and all of you too of course – ready to defend against some crazy on a mission to purify the earth on God’s behalf. Yeah, there’s plenty of purifying I’d like to be done as well.
So, where’s God in all of this mess? God gave us the Sixth Commandment, not to kill, but God’s saying “Don’t,” hasn’t seemed to stop much of anything. And for all that thinking and praying going on – well it’s resulted these past few days in another wave of anti-Islamic rhetoric from the moronic mouths of at least four of the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. I have some words for that bunch too – some of which words not even I would utter from the pulpit.
“And this is my prayer, that your love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
Tuesday evening was surreal. The news coverage of the San Bernardino massacre was coming to an end on NBC in order to make way for the annual lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. I was seething. How incredibly inappropriate to follow the tragedy of the day with the singing of pop, banal Christmas muzak, along with the manufacturing of merriment tailor-made to drive us to the mall to buy presents that no one needs. Unforgiveable, and I could feel my blood-pressure rising.
And then promptly at 7.00, the Christmas-tree-lighting show began – with a song I’ve usually found beneath contempt . . . “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” Oh no, you’re not going to pin this one on me. I’m not like those crazy fools who let violence dwell in their hearts. Am I?
And from the mountain Jesus spoke, saying, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother of sister you will be liable to judgment . . . and if you say, ‘you fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Am I then not every bit as much of the problem as the next person? There is a sickness within me – within us all: anger, resentment, fear pit us, drive us against one another. The first murder in the Bible was the result of Cain resenting his brother – that story meant to remind us that the murderous impulse resides in all of us. Though perhaps in these United States with particular fervor – we seem to be a highly resentful, angry, and fearful culture. But I am a part of that culture – and what happens in my mind and what comes out of my mouth – well, am I not then a part of the problem rather than the solution?
What then is the solution? John comes a-preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sin. And repentance, a change of mind. Forgiveness and a change of mind intimately entwined with one another. Forgiveness of sin creating a new mind, a new heart, a new reality. The flames of the Holy Spirit descend upon us in the forgiveness of sin, a refiner’s fire – God’s tongues of flame – the Word and Sacraments – renewing a right spirit within us. The Word and Sacraments assuring us that God will renew that right spirit within us and we are not left on our own – assuring us that we are not cast away from God’s presence and the Holy Spirit not taken from us – we are being restored to the joy of God’s salvation, upheld with God’s free Spirit. And thus purified, indeed peace begins in the cleansed hearts and minds of all of us. We have already been and are continually being reborn as God’s peaceful people, the hills and valleys of our fear and aggression made a plane, the crooked ways of our resentments straightened out.
You do know that I would be in error if I were to bind your consciences to a particular political solution to the problem of death by firearm; equally good people will disagree about solutions – hell, I even disagree within myself. But the one thing I must do is say that whatever our differences are as to a solution, we will not break company, fellowship with one another, we will not demonize those who disagree with us, we will not demonize people of a different faith tradition – if we believe Jesus, all of those things are acts of aggression, and that is not who we are, not who we are being cleansed by God’s Spirit to be. We are a peaceful people and we will love those who differ from us, even those whose opinions may fill us with fear and loathing. We will love them and pray for them even as we await the Angel’s Christmas Song of “Peace on earth and goodwill among all people.” That peace and that goodwill begin with us. We will be who we are redeemed to be – peacemakers – God-willing, a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.
From our Second Reading, St. Paul’s words to the Philippians: “And this is my prayer, that your love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
You are peacemakers. Go. Do what you deem is best, but always with Christ-like love in your hearts. Amen.