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Archive for February, 2018

God & Gun Violence

Monday, February 19, 2018

This morning, a parishioner sent me a message with the link below. The blog article was entitled “God, Memes, and Terrible Theology” and focused on the following meme:

IMG_0100“Dear God, Why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, A Concerned Student.”

The response was “Dear Concerned Student, I am not allowed in schools. God.”

The point of the author is that so much horrible theology follows tragedy. If you want to read this article, here is the link:  https://calledsent.blogspot.com/2018/02/dear-church-we-gotta-talk-god-memes-and.html?m=1

As I thought about it, I went back to my 2007 sermon archives to find a sermon I had written and preached the Sunday after the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy, in which a young man methodically killed thirty-two of his fellow students,  then took his own life.

First of all, I wrote a poem about that tragedy. Although it is eleven years later, it seems that human beings have not learned many lessons about “respecting the dignity of every (other) human being” (quote from Holy Baptism service in the Book of Common Prayer)  In fact, you have to wonder if we’ve learned much at all that is good and positive, anything of which God would be proud. I’ve lost count of the violent mass shootings in the United States since that fateful cold, gray, April day in Blacksburg, Virginia.

images

Here is the poem:

April Gun Metal Morning

(Dedicated to the Virginia Tech Hokie Nation)

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.

Whoever has faith in me shall have life,

Even though he die.

And everyone who has life,

And has committed himself to me in faith,

Shall not die forever.[1]

 

Against April gun metal morning sky,

Snow flakes swirl, dip, dance.

Patches of crimson color move slowly.

Hooded, heads bent, blue-jeaned Hokie nation

Clutch coffee and books, bound to learn

ElementaryGermanIntermediateFrench

SolidMechanicsAdvanced Hydrology.

 

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives

And that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

After my awaking, he will raise me up;

And in my body I shall see God.

I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him

Who is my friend and not a stranger.

 

Against April gun metal morning sky,

A solitary silent man in tan and black

Chooses a final path to destruction.

Two lives taken, thirty-one left,

He prowls with stealth. Determination. Focus.

Snow flakes swirl, dip, dance

He does not notice their grace, their beauty, their lightness of being.

 

For none of us has life in himself,

And none becomes his own master when he dies.

For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,

And if we die, we die in the Lord.

So, then, whether we live or die,

We are the Lord’s possession.

 

Against April gun metal morning sky,

Norris Hall is secured. Chained. Ready for death.

Shots puncture peace in methodical madness.

Heads bend, bodies fall, coffee spills.

Crimson stained a blue-jeaned nation,

Spreads from one life to another.

Connects the living with the dead.

 

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Chris, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

 

Against April gun metal afternoon sky,

Wailing of mothers rips hearts open.

Anguish of fathers bruises souls.

Stunned silence of friends hangs suspended in cold air.

The early morning beauty of snowflakes explodes into crimson.

And the sweet souls of the innocent dance unexpectedly

From earth’s chains into the incredible lightness of heaven.

 

Happy from now on

Are those who die in the Lord!

So it is, says the Spirit,

For they rest from their labors.

The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton                    18 April, 2007.

[1] From “The Burial of the Dead” in The 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

 

VIRGINIA-TECH-SHOOTING-candlelight-vigil

Second, on the Sunday after the Virginia Tech tragedy, I preached the following sermon to parishioners at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Wilmington, DE, where I served as Interim Rector. As I have re-read it, I feel sad that my thoughts still apply, that we are no further down the road of peace, reconciliation and better ways to address both gun violence and mental health issues. And I still feel the same need to build up the faith of your children and young people in specific ways, because their world is still precarious and dangerous.

Easter 3, Yr C                                                 April 22, 2007

Reading:  Acts 9:1-20

Saul was a man on a mission. Convinced that he possessed the truth with a capital T, he set off on a murderous rampage. His goal? To bring followers of Jesus Christ to Jerusalem, to face religious persecution. Suddenly, on the road to Damascus, Saul was blinded by a dazzling light. After an unexpected and powerful encounter with the risen Christ, Saul’s life completely changed. In fact, it changed so dramatically, Saul changed his name to Paul, and the apostle Paul would spend the rest of his life as a witness to the love and life of Jesus Christ.

In the news this past week, we have heard about another man on a mission. Cho Seung-hui, a Virginia Tech student, believed that he possessed truth. Despite the bizarre multi-media manifesto that Cho mailed to NBC News, we will never know just what his mission was—other than some kind of delusional revenge. On Monday morning, this young man, armed with chains, knives, two semi-automatic pistols and a backpack full of ammunition, slaughtered thirty-two of his fellow students and teachers, then took his own life.

What was the difference between Saul, blinded by the light of Christ on a dusty road, and Cho Seung-hui, blinded by his own mental issues? Both believed they had the Truth with a capital T. Yet on the road to Damascus, the light of the risen Christ changed the life of Saul. No one reported seeing a divine light in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech last Monday. Where was God on Monday morning with those students and teachers? Why did God not send a divine light to blind a killer on the loose?

There are many questions in our hearts about this tragedy. I have wept as I watched and listened to the sights and sounds of senseless violence that has wrenched innocent people of all ages, all faiths and all cultures away from their families. And I have wondered how we know the difference between a vision of truth and an illusion of truth. What happens when the blinding light is from evil, not from good? How do we know the difference?

I wonder if community has something to do with this. When we hear the story of Saul today, we see that his repentance, his conversion, and the beginnings of his Christian faith did not take place in isolation. After this dazzling encounter with Christ blinded him, someone took care of him for three days. Then Ananias came to minister to him, to pray with him. Afterwards, Saul stayed with that Christian community. The power, the strength, and the support of this community of faith moved all of them beyond individual truth to a greater one. And it was out of the greater truth and love of Jesus Christ that these apostles changed the world. However, had truth not been worked out over time, in the context of community, our Christian faith would not be as strong as it is today. Why? Because as we live in community, we discuss, we argue, we ask questions. Sometimes we agree. Sometimes we disagree strongly. Yet we are family, united by, and grounded in, our faith in the risen Christ. Whatever our differences, we honor each other, we love each other, and we stumble together along our journey of life.

I thought about community this week when I heard about a mentally unbalanced young man who lived totally inside himself. Cho refused to abide by professors’ guidelines in class. He behaved in anti-social ways. He rejected help for his mental and emotional issues. He refused to engage in any kind of real community with professors, students, even his suite mates. Cho believed that he possessed some kind of truth, but that truth lived inside him. He never tested his inner reality with that of the community around him. Now given the information which has emerged in the last few days, it is likely that this young man was incapable of being in community. He was just too ill—and had been so for all of his life.

So is it possible that compassion and community work best in a more ideal world? The preacher does not have this answer. All she knows is that unfortunately, you and I do not live in an ideal world. Every day, we are reminded of that truth. Every day, thousands of our brothers and sisters lose their lives. Whether on an American college campus, a Baghdad neighborhood, a dusty road in Darfur or a refugee camp in Palestine, thousands of our brothers and sisters die in acts of violence. All we have to do is to open the newspaper or look online to see this truth. We do not live in paradise. We lost that world a long time ago. No, we live in a broken, sinful world where evil wins too often. Young people die too soon.

And so especially this week, we have more questions than answers. I did not personally know any of those young people or professors who died. I do not see my own son’s picture all over the internet or newspapers. Yet you and I are deeply connected to each one of them—just as we are connected to those parents who grieve this morning in Baghdad, or Darfur, or Palestine, or anywhere else in the world where people bury their loved ones today. God’s children are all connected in a community. For some of us, that is a community of faith. So even when we have more questions than answers, we are not alone. We have each other, and God is there in the midst of us.

My friends, God is always there in the midst of suffering. God was with Adam and Eve the day their buried their son Abel after his brother Cain murdered him. God was with Job when he buried everyone one of his sons and daughters, then sat in the dust and suffered with boils. God was with Jesus as he suffered on the cross on Good Friday. Throughout the story of God’s people, God has been there in suffering. On Monday morning, God was there at Virginia Tech. God was there with students who protected each other with their very bodies; who used their own hoodies to fashion tourniquets for one another; who held doors shut with their feet or with tables. God was there with Professor Librescue, a seventy-six year old Holocaust survivor, when he gave his own life to protect his students. God was there as police officers, emergency technicians, doctors, nurses, and chaplains responded with compassion and skill. God was there as one young man returned again and again to Norris Hall, carrying the bodies of his classmates out and laying them on the grass. When asked why he was doing that, he replied, “Well, somebody had to do it.”[1] God was there in the midst of a grieving community in Blacksburg, Virginia this week. God is here today, in the prayers, the compassion, the love of God’s people—all over this nation and this world.

We Christians believe that physical, human death—no matter how it comes—is not the end of our story. That is because Jesus’ death on a cross was not the end of the story.I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die forever.[2]  Yes!  And: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tomb.”[3]

 Yet we, like Saul on the road to Damascus, must choose to participate in this resurrection life. After we encounter the risen Christ in our lives, we must be willing to live our lives differently. This means commitment to a life of faith. This means that as parents, we bring our children to church regularly so that when they face dark times, they will have a solid spiritual foundation. They will know right from wrong. They will have a reservoir of spiritual strength from which to draw. We do not want the first time our children to utter a real prayer is on a Monday morning as they push their feet against a classroom door to keep a killer out.  So if we are to give our children more than a token social dose of Christianity, we have a responsibility to bring them into Christian community every Sunday. We have a responsibility to help teach them.

True Christian faith is not lived out in solation. True faith is living out within a community that pushes against us. Teaches us. Shapes us. Ultimately, one that stands with us in unconditional love. And where deep and abiding love remains, there is God. Today, with deep and abiding love, may we pray for all of God’s children who have lost their lives this week—from Iraq to Palestine to Darfur to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. May all of them rest in peace and rise in glory. And at the last day, may all of God’s children stand around the throne to worship the God who created us as God’s family. Amen.

(c) The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] From a story told by Bishop George Packard to the Diocese of Delaware Convention on April 20, 2007.

[2] From “The Burial of the Dead: Rite Two” in The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 491.

[3] Ibid., 500.

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