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Text: Psalm 51:1-11
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” John 12:27
God who speaks through holy words, we give thanks for the Sacred Scriptures we have just heard. Make these ancient texts come alive once again, O God, and let your Living Word discomfort, change, and set us free to follow Christ in these troubled and troubling days. Amen.
I am sure it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the issue of gun violence has been the common thread in my Lenten sermons this year. I had not planned to turn such an emotionally charged and potentially divisive issue into the cross we would carry together during our Lenten journey, but then the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School happened. And it happened on Ash Wednesday – the very first day of Lent, which is the season in the Christian year that calls on you and me to take a long, honest look at the discrepancy between what we say we believe about God and how we live.
The whole purpose of Lent is indeed to get people of faith to open our eyes. During these forty days, we have the difficult spiritual task of facing our demons with our eyes wide-open to see how we may have been seduced by their fake promises of safety, affluence, control, supremacy and power. Our liturgical calendar takes us back to the wilderness of Lent every year because it is right here, as we journey with Christ to the cross, that God’s Spirit shows us the difference between the cultural, political, religious and moral seductions of our demons and the new life of love, justice and faith God gives us through Christ. Walter Brueggemann, one of the most thoughtful and distinguished Biblical scholars of our days, summarizes what the Lenten season means to the Church with these words, “Lent is the time we stand, each of us – liberal and conservative – just between the Lord of suffering love and the ruler of this world. We stand there pulled in both directions and sense the enormous ambiguity of our life, wishing to care and be generous but wanting to be selfish and have it our own way.”
Gun violence is without a doubt an issue that pulls our entire society in different directions and tempts us to deal with the gun issue in our own self-serving ways. The word “gun” itself is loaded with so many conflicting meanings and feelings that at the moment we hear it said out loud, especially from the pulpit, there is an almost involuntary impulse to hunker down, run back to our own ideological shelters, and stop listening. Unfortunately, guns are much more than mere weapons in our culture; they have become a symbol of our country’s sociopolitical polarization and cultural divide. I am certain that there is not one single reasonable American who wants to see another shooter at large in our schools, theaters, nightclubs and places of worship and yet we remain so divided over what to do about guns that we prefer the protection of our own personal opinions rather than engaging constructively with anyone who has a different view. Every time the gun issue comes up, our tendency is to seek comfort among people who share either our love or dislike of guns. On the gun issue, we have locked ourselves inside echo chambers where we only hear the side that validates what we already believe about the gun culture, the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association. And even though we are all appalled at the horror of gun violence, we do not know how to turn our collective outrage into life-saving gun laws and policies. Far right gun advocates and far left gun control activists have hijacked the national dialogue on guns and any attempt at having a serious conversation on how to reduce gun violence is fated to die in the hands of both gun lovers and gun haters who want to have the debate go their own way.
I am fully aware of how emotionally draining and spiritually exhausting it is to wrestle with the gun issue. I know that many people in the pews would rather not hear any sermon on America’s self-destructive history with guns, much less a whole series of sermons on gun violence. I understand that for many of you this hour of worship is a very personal, very private and very sacred moment and you would rather keep this sacred time off-limits to the divisive social issues that are raging on outside the walls of our meetinghouse. There are many gun-weary Christians who have heard enough about gun violence in the media and listening to the gun issue in church makes them feel as if the ugly politics and culture wars that define the gun debate were encroaching on their personal time before God. So let me tell all of you how much I appreciate your support and patience as I have shared with you what I believe is a very relevant faith issue in our days. Thank you for not giving up on me as your pastor or on this church as your faith community. I am grateful for your commitment to keep listening rather than walking away from our Lenten journey. Thank you for being engaged both intellectually and spiritually as I have struggled each Sunday to put into words what I believe God is calling us to do as we faithfully minister to a nation wounded by gun violence. Thank you for the e-mails you have sent me; thank you for the articles you have shared with me; thank you for telling me where you stand on the gun issue; and thank you for expressing your opinions and your convictions always, always, in a thoughtful and respectful way.
I hope that by now you have already realized that I am not preaching on gun violence to push a certain partisan ideology or a particular political viewpoint. I honestly believe that gun violence in America is not just an ideological question or a political matter; it is also a faith issue. And as people of faith, we cannot avoid opening our eyes to see how our national and historical approach to guns and violence have brought our whole country to this point where our sons and daughters feel compelled to walk out of their schools in protest to our utter inability to talk with one another and agree on even modest gun control legislation.
After the shooting in Parkland, it has become even clearer that there is something that is not quite right with our society. American modern life has given us better quality of life, longer lifespan, state-of-the-art technologies, scientific discoveries, some of the best universities in human history, individual rights, unfettered progress, the Internet, wealth and democracy, but it hasn’t been able to give us a deeper love for life. In the midst of our great achievements and material improvements, the American soul appears to be struggling to find real meaning and purpose in life. Without faith in God’s saving grace, without any concern for Christ’s mandate to love the neighbor, without any religious teachings about the sacredness of life and completely free from all spiritual moorings, it appears that the American soul has embraced the rulers of this world and is unable or unwilling to confront the demons of gun violence and mass shootings that are tormenting our nation.
This is troubling! It is unsettling to think that we have become so indifferent to the gift of life that we are not willing to do whatever it takes to contain the demonic fury that guns have unleashed upon our society. And this is why I have been preaching about gun violence during Lent. In this troubling hour, people of faith like us have to remember that in his own moment of anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty Jesus found in his faith in God the strength to keep walking in the light rather than staying safely hidden in the shadows of anonymity and indifference. In today’s gospel lesson, John tells us that Jesus’ soul was agitated because Jesus knew that his determination to confront the ruthless and violent order of the world would cost him his own life, but Jesus still made the hard choice to make his voice heard, his actions public, his stance clear and his commitment to life unquestionable.
Jesus’ faith was deeply personal. He knew God as loving Father. Jesus found meaning in God’s Word. He believed that God cares about each person and loves each individual and accepts every human being and promises that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love and grace. Throughout his ministry, it was this deep awareness of the presence of God in his life that kept Jesus faithful to his call, to his mission and to his passion for a world of peace and justice; a world where people are not divided by their selfish desire to have it all their own way; a world where children are safe and violence is replaced with love, friendship, forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus’ faith was very personal, but it was also very public. His faith inspired him to imagine a world transformed by the power of love, the strength of hope, the joy of justice and the freedom of peace. At the heart of Jesus’ faith was an intense longing to live for others and to make the world better for others. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried to define who Jesus was, the great German theologian, pastor and martyr simply said, “Jesus is the Man for Others.”
And it was Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the nature of Christ that opened his eyes to see the Church’s mission as being essentially public and communal. In one of the letters Bonhoeffer wrote to a close friend from a Nazi prison, he said, “The church is the church only when it exists for others…The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.”
At the core of Jesus’ faith, at the heart of the Gospel, and in the center of our religious tradition there is this commitment to look not only inward, but also out into the world God loves and wants to save. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a simple story about a grain of wheat that has to fall deep into the soil in order to grow and bear fruit. Nowhere else in the Gospels does Jesus use this image of the grain that can just remain a single grain or become the seed for something much bigger than itself. And I believe what Jesus is saying is that our faith cannot be private. Our faith can’t be just about ourselves; our church; our quiet moment of worship on Sunday mornings. Our faith in God’s love, in God’s truth, in God’s justice, in God’s creative power has to inspire us to be men and women of faith who want to choose generosity and solidarity rather than selfishness and our own ways. In one of his final public teaching moments in the Gospel of John, Jesus makes it clear that those who love their lives – meaning, those who refuse to live for others – will never truly appreciate the gift of life; but those who hate their lives in this world – meaning, those who believe that a better way of life in community is possible – will live more fully and even eternally.
It is not an easy thing to live for others, is it? We can’t live trouble-free when we participate very intentionally in the problems of our society, especially when the issue of gun violence continues to divide us. It would be much easier if we did not have to think at all about the gun issue when we gather to practice our faith, but we are not called to be anonymous Christians. Our calling is to practice our faith in the light, making it clear and unmistakable to our society that we will not allow the far right gun lobby or the far left gun control advocates to keep the American soul distrustful, fearful, and distracted by the demons of gun violence. As followers of the Man who lived for others, we have to push against the reality of gun violence and do everything we can to stop the irreparable damage that guns are doing to towns and cities across America. This is a daunting task for the Church, but it is in troubled times like this that we are called to step out of the confines of our personal opinions and private religion to stand in solidarity with our whole nation. It is in times like this that we have to be fully present with our neighbors - offering our faith, our love, our prayers, our intellect and our willingness to confront the demons of gun violence. It is for troubling times like this that our mission to serve humanity can offer an alternative to the political paralysis and ideological divisions that have kept our society from doing everything possible to put a stop to gun violence.
The other day I came across a book of poetry entitled “Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence.” The book was published last year and on its pages there is a powerful call to end gun violence through the voices of celebrated American poets, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and individuals whose lives have been forever changed by guns. Each poem is followed by a response from a survivor of gun violence or a concerned American who wants gun violence to simply stop. One of the poems in the book is called “Instructions for Stopping.” The gun survivor who responded to the words of the poem speaks about the day her ex-husband appeared at her door and started shooting. He shot her and her father in front of their four-year-old son. As bullets cut through her body, the survivor wrote, that all she could say was “Stop!” Here are the words of the poem:
Keep your lips pressed together
After you say the p:
(soon they’ll try
Your breath out -)
Three times in a row:
Stop Stop Stop – […]
List all of the people
You would like
To stop […]
Put a period at the end.
Decide if it’s a kiss
Or a bullet.”
When I was reading and preparing for this sermon, I read that there are 300 million guns already in circulation in our country and this number goes up after every mass shooting. The writer of the column in the New York Times said that the permanence of guns is a reality that America has to make peace with. Speaking about the challenge to stop the bullets, The Wall Street Journal, which is a fairly conservative newspaper, reported that since the shooting at Douglas High, “there have been 10 cases where live round was fired inside or into a school building, or on or onto school grounds that resulted in injury or death, including suicides.” I was shocked to learn that on average there are 123 suicides per day in America and the presence of guns in a home increases the likelihood of gun-related suicides by threefold. Middle-aged white males are more likely to use firearms to commit suicide, making up 79 percent of all firearm suicide victims and about 60 percent of total gun deaths in the U.S.. Even more alarming was the study published by the journal “Pediatrics,” which showed that an average of 6,000 American children receive emergency room treatment for gun-related injuries each year and an average of 1,000 kids die annually from gun-related injuries, making guns the third-leading cause of death of children in America. It is heartbreaking to think that children who should be drawing colorful pictures of horses and lions and people flying over their homes and fish letting out bubbles in the shape of hearts from their mouth, drawings just like the ones on the walls of our church, are being injured and killed by guns.
So here we are, people of faith, Christians, followers of the Man who lived for us ad for others, living in a time of gun violence. Can we say “Stop?” Can we reclaim our calling to make our faith public? Do we care enough about others to speak up against the rulers of this world, to show that as Christians we stand on the side of life and hope and freedom and sensible gun laws? Can we write a love letter to our nation, promising that we will embrace the faith of Christ and live for one another? Can we hate our lives in this world of gun violence enough to reach out to one another, both gun owners and people like me who never touched a gun – to talk to each other respectfully about how to stop gun violence? Rather than hiding behind our ideological corners or living in our political echo chambers, can we, out of love and hope for the American soul, say out loud “Stop?”
If today you were asked to write down “Stop the shootings, stop the killings, stop the guns,” would the period at the end of your note be a kiss or just another bullet waiting for another shooting to happen?
 Walter Brueggemann. “A Way Other Than Our Own,” p. 86 [Kindle Edition].
 Larry L. Rasmussen. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance,” p. 21.
 Eberhard Bethge, editor. “Dietrich Bonhoefer: Letters and Papers from Prison,” pp. 382-383.
 Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, editors. “Bullets into Bells,” Instructions for Stopping by Dana Levin, pp. 106-108.
 By Adam Winkler. “Emotions About Guns Can Be Ratcheted Down,” Room for Debate, The Opinion Pages, the New York Times, 13 June 2016. [https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/01/06/what-the-fight-over-guns-is-really-about/emotions-about-guns-can-be-ratcheted-down]
 By Scott Calvert. “Since Parkland’s #NeverAgain, School Shootings Have Happened Again,” The Wall Street Journal, 14 March 2018. [https://www.wsj.com/articles/since-parklands-neveragain-school-shootings-have-happened-again-1521019801]
 American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Suicide Statistics [https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/]
 Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, AMERICA'S AVERAGE GUN VIOLENCE VICTIM IS WHITE AND MALE. [http://www.bradycampaign.org/press-room/americas-average-gun-violence-victim-is-white-and-male]
 By Ryan Bort. “KIDS AND GUNS: SHOOTINGS NOW THIRD LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH FOR U.S. CHILDREN,” Newsweek, 19 June 2017. [http://www.newsweek.com/guns-kids-third-leading-cause-death-627209]
Sermons are meant to be preached and, therefore, all sermons are prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation rather than on proper grammar and punctuation required of written documents.