February 10, 2019
One Life Lost is Too Many
Luke 12.4.6-7, 22-32 and Matthew 26:52
Note regarding Social Justice: An Interim Pastor is supposed to help a congregation explore the scope of the church’s purpose. I hope to offer a sample today regarding social justice. America was designed to defend religious freedoms, yet years of misinterpretation have attempted to exclude churches from speaking out on and taking political and social action. Jesus taught and demonstrated caring for all people, especially the downtrodden. Is it an obligation of the church to protest and take action against violence and power abuse? Sandy Larson
The wise Rabbi, Abraham Heschel said, “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
When people feel ill at ease about something, they tend to joke about it. Humor about gun violence is popular. Gun control, says one comic, is when you use BOTH hands to hold the gun. How many NRA spokesmen do you need to change a light bulb? Answer: More guns.
Rabbi Heschel’s words challenge us: “Where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
In 1998, I was living near Thurston High School in Springfield, OR. Thurston was a typical white middle-class suburban school. In May, Kip Kinkel was suspended from school for having a gun in his locker. He had lots of other guns at home. That day, 15-year-old Kinkel shot and killed his parents. The next morning he opened fire at Thurston High School, killing two and wounding 25. This 15-year old was seriously mentally ill, but no one had taken sufficient action to address this loner’s condition.
Counselors, clergy, and the school district assembled an immediate crisis team to help deal with the shock and grief that enveloped the community. I was part of that team. The day after the shooting, other counselors and I were on campus as a calming presence. We stood alongside students as people placed flowers outside a school fence. One girl shivered so badly that I gave her my sweater.
The crisis team discovered that many matriculating middle school students feared the prospect of attending Thurston high school. The middle school students were offered hall passes to meet with crisis caregivers in small groups in the library. Students were reluctant to talk at first, but once they learned that we were all there to LISTEN to each other, they opened their hearts.
The sister of a high school student who had been shot but not killed was in my group. The sister was grateful to share her feelings because a gag order from the court forbid her whole family from talking about the pending case. After discussions, many sought hugs. This intervention made me more deeply appreciate and identify with the loving care that Jesus offered day after day. Love your neighbor as yourself means demonstrating care at the worst of times.
In 1998, such gun violence was almost inconceivable except in gang-infested inner cities. Even so, the crisis team had the foresight to put together a gun and bomb violence response guide that would be used for subsequent interventions.
A few years ago, I was a leader in the Coalition for Peace Action. Using resources from the Coalition for Peace Action, I worked with groups, such as Mothers Against Gun Violence in Trenton, NJ. Much like Newburgh in recent years past—Trenton had experienced far too many shootings. Besides mutual support, they challenged police to earn more community trust. Mothers Against Gun Violence also persuaded police to replace their old dispatch system. The old radio system made it easy for perpetrators of crimes to monitor police communications to elude apprehension… and to target those who called the police, so almost no one reported crimes.
We also found ways for these grieving moms to tell their families’ stories to broader audiences—knowing that compassion for victims’ families would inspire grass roots action to curb violence.
When I helped coordinate a national peacemaking conference, I talked with Juan Cole, one of the key speakers. Juan Cole, is a Middle East scholar with a strong commitment to human rights and anti-imperialism. Juan Cole told me that he is impressed with the positive impact that the Presbyterian Church USA is making on behalf of human rights. I told him that I have observed that our church denomination does not seem all that focused on social justice. Cole insisted, saying that Presbyterians are one of the most active faith organizations in America in promoting initiatives for human rights. I accepted the accolade with a bit of sadness because churches could do much more to help and advocate for all kinds of victims. Notably, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship actively promotes gun violence prevention and many local congregations are actively engaging in advocacy. Thinking outside the box, a Mennonite congregation collected guns from the whole community and employed a blacksmith to break down the guns to make them into gardening tools.
A bulletin insert lists some of the organizations that faithfully work to reduce violence and abuse in our nation. All concerned citizens can lobby law makers for better mental health measures, preventing purchase of guns at Gun Shows without background checks, banning automatic guns and bump stocks, strict gun registration, crisis education and community efforts to reduce violence. There are links in the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship website and I have put address labels of our congress representative in a jar at the back of the sanctuary—so please exercise your responsibility as a citizen.
The most powerful tool we have is prayer. The Apostle Paul was persecuted by the Roman government and Jewish religious leaders. From prison, Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians, describing what kept him strong: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [4.6-7]
…Have no anxiety about anything, BECAUSE we can let our requests be known to God. We can pray for violence to end. We can pray for better mental health assessments and treatments. We can pray for combative or competing factions of any ilk to work together for common good. We can pray for harmony to prevail throughout the world. And we can pray for the all-encompassing peace that passes all understanding.
I believe that Christians are uniquely equipped to counter fears and address challenges that grip our world today. The reason is faith: We trust God’s power and love—even in the midst of trauma or difficulty.
We trust God’s power and love even in the face of death.
In the beautiful passage about lilies and birds that Alex read this morning, Jesus summed up his assurances by saying: “do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek God’s kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” As long as we trust God, we will not need to worry or fear.
God’s vision for the world is the Peaceable Kingdom. The OT super-faith hero, Abraham was challenged with tests too daunting to even imagine. Like the OT hero Job, this faith father of Jews, Muslims and Christians, was challenged by at least four seemingly irrefutable reasons to give in to hopelessness and despair. Neither Job nor Abraham lost trust in God. When facing his greatest test, Abraham declared simply, “God will provide.” [Gn 22:8] God will provide--often beyond our best ability to imagine. Equipped with confidence that God will provide resolution, and a way forward, we can meet even the hardest challenges with courage and commitment to stay the course.
Sometimes, we need to make embarrassing changes of direction.
My dad was raised on the mid-West prairie and enjoyed hunting. Dad hunted for food and shot rodents that dug holes in the grazing pastures, that endangered livestock.
My dad was a longtime proud supporter of the National Rifle Association. But he came to see that the NRA policies and NRA lobbyists began to represent values that he could not endorse. So, in humiliation, and yet pride at making the right decision based on his ethical standards, my dad quit the NRA and admitted that he had been supporting an organization that opposes many values he holds as important.
Let us remember victims of gun violence and their grieving families and friends. Let us acknowledge that we all grieve the loss of feeling secure in our own day-to-day activities. May we deepen our trust in God—so that, like Jesus, we can confidently minister to the needs of victims of any violence or loss. And like Jesus, may we have such trust in God’s overarching care, that we will find courage to challenge power brokers and power-mongers who perpetuate oppression and injustice. May we find wisdom to impel us to take action that will help make a world community of mutual care and respect—where people do not need to live in fear.
If God said prayers, I believe God would say, One life lost is too many.