In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
You know, it was only a little more than a month ago that I stood in this very spot and wondered with you, how we could make sense of a mass shooting event. That was in the aftermath of the Emanuel AME shootings in South Carolina. Since that time, we had another mass casualty event at a military recruitment office in Chattanooga. And now this horrible tragedy has visited our own people.
In thinking back, I preached in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings too – and frankly there have been too many others to think about. These events make no sense at all, whether you are immediately and viscerally experiencing them, or whether you are looking at them from afar. It just boggles my mind that one person could shoot a bunch of people to whom he has no connection; who, in point of fact, he has never met.
The complete senselessness of this sort of act leads people to ask: Why would God allow innocent people to be killed and injured this way? Or, My God! Why did you do this to us? Those are fair questions in the immediate aftermath of the event.
When we look at Thursday’s shootings through the lens of our immediate pain and confusion, it would be easy to get so lost in anger and depression that the only thing we could do would be to shrug and say, “I don’t know why these things happen, so I will just hug my loved ones and go on with life.” If that is where you are, I understand that. But do not stay in that place. It is important to get beyond that response of shock and dismay and to move to a place where our fear, anger and hurt can be channeled toward something better. Let me offer you a few thoughts on this.
First, pay no attention to the people in the media who have simple answers for the complex issue of gun violence in America. There are no simple answers. The answer certainly is NOT to arm every American citizen. As Gandhi once noted, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Everyone being armed does not make people safer, it only gives them the illusion of safety. And despite what some have said, this is NOT God’s retribution wrought on America for some perceived national sins. The God who brought God’s very self to us in the person of Jesus Christ, does not bring down meaningless retribution on a group of innocent movie-goers – and particularly not at the hands of a drifter with a criminal record. As we just heard, in the best-known line of John’s Gospel, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” That statement speaks of a God who loves people dearly, so dearly that God would sacrifice on OUR behalf. That is not a God who seeks such personal retribution.
God did not DO this thing to our friends and neighbors. I am quite certain of that. And similarly, I firmly believe that God did not “allow” this thing to happen for some greater purpose. There are so many ways that God does act in the world – ways which reflect God’s love for creation and God’s immeasurable goodness – that to believe that God somehow “turned a blind eye” to what was going on at the Grand 16 just does not compute for me. No … I do not believe that God caused these shootings to happen, either by act of commission or by act of omission. This tragic event was, quite simply, the result of a broken world, inhabited by broken people.
The second thing that I want you to keep in mind is: no matter what people in the media may say, this IS the perfect time to begin to talk about the blight of gun violence in America. In fact, we are incredibly overdue for beginning to have that conversation. Over 30,000 people are killed by gun violence in this country every year. If not now, when IS IT the right time to talk about that? I do not pretend to have any coherent answers for the issue of gun violence. I know that gun ownership by responsible Americans is not the problem. I do not know what kind of regulation might be beneficial for us to start to stem this tide of violence. But I do know that unless we begin to have the conversation – in other words, if we just continue to ignore the problem as somehow being inherent to who we are – we can only expect a continuation of the same cycle of violence we experience now.
The third thing is that we, as Christians, need to come together in the wake of this tragedy, to begin to galvanize ourselves into a group that wants to take on God’s mission of healing and renewal in this broken world. We need to find new ways to reach out to the larger community of Lafayette and beyond … to find new avenues for not just bringing the Good News of Christ, but BEING the Good News. For instance, what would it be like if this congregation began to make connections with a church, or churches on the East side of the Evangeline Thruway, not so that we could be benevolent benefactors to them, but so that we could create relationships that would allow us to find common ground. Through such relationships we might be able to engage a new part of God’s mission of peace and hope in a different mission field.
St. Paul, in his wonderful explication of love to the church in Corinth, gives us some good advice for taking on such a mission. He said:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Everything that we do in the name of Jesus Christ, must be done in love. And that loving mission cannot wait.
I am not going to stand up here and tell you that we should all just get up, dust ourselves off and jump into new and exciting ways of being The Church, right now, today. For some of you, that would be a possibility. But for others, it is simply too soon. Believe me, I understand that there is a great deal of grief at work in our homes, our congregation, our city and our state.
Grief is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. It can cause you to become stuck in a seemingly hopeless place, feeling that you will never have the ability to get past it. That is the other place where the love of Christ can be at work in and through us. In coming days, you will hear about the establishment of grief groups here at St. Barnabas, safe places where people can share their pain, their fear and their feeling of being out of control. We will get through this horrible event together. That is one of the reasons that we gather as the body of Christ – for the soul strengthening nourishment that we gather from each other, and our Lord.
I visited with Bo and Gerry Ramsay this afternoon. They are out of the hospital and recuperating at home. They very much appreciate your thoughts and prayers and expressed that several times. Keep up the prayers, they work. Bo said something striking to me. He said that he holds no ill will against the man who shot him, and everyone else. He said, “I forgave him that night. It was what I had to do to seek after my own faith.” Now I am not saying that this event will not have long-term effects on Bo. It will. But his approach to healing is one that we could all learn from. Through his conscious act of forgiveness, Bo has already gone miles down the road to healing and wholeness.
Remember what St. Paul told the Corinthians,
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
As we continue to try to process all that happened to our community in recent days, let us have the love of Jesus Christ as our watchword. Let us not be arrogant or rude toward each other, or anyone else who does not share in our pain. Let us not rejoice in the gunman taking his own life. Instead, let us rejoice in the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. And let us be patient and kind with everyone who is working through this at a different speed than we are. But as our immediate pain begins to subside, let us harness all of the energy that we have put into hurting and turn it into a positive force, to begin to bring healing and reconciliation to our small corner of the Kingdom of God.