Our text for today comes from the familiar Sermon on the Mount, and includes the Beatitudes, a text that while powerful, has had its power forgotten. No longer is it commonly noted as to how radical its message was and how Jesus’ words would have shaken the world of those who heard him on that Galilean hillside.
“Love your enemy” “Blessed are the merciful” “Turn the other cheek”: with these words Jesus was not simply setting forth a brand new lofty ethical standard, he was in fact giving a very specific challenge to the hearers of this message—both then and still today.
Jesus was offering a new vision—a new vision of what it means to be God’s children. And this message, this challenge, is to be people who know of the hope-filled promise brought by the Savior of the world—a promise that tells us all are children of God, all are blessed, and their faithful work is blessed also.
And that work? To be those who live and share the hope, peace, joy, and love found in God our Creator and Christ Jesus our Savior.
Last week I spoke about our role of being Hope-Tellers because we have heard God’s word. We are to share the message that this world can be better than it is, and that as those who dwell in the abyss, we have a duty and an obligation to share that hope with others—to show the Good News to those who have come to believe there is none.
That message came in response to the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.
But last Sunday was simply about our need to be Hope-Tellers. Now today, we as a church begin to discuss, openly, how we will do such during our Church Chat following worship this morning.
So to prepare for this sermon and our discussion, this week I found myself researching cultural reactions and responses and discussions and perspectives to mass shootings, along with the divisiveness surrounding them.
And while I can share with you a lot of statistics, I’d rather share how in doing my research, how something happened—how something moved me, challenged me, even changed me. And that something was learning about, and broadening my perspective toward the interconnection of gun violence and inequality—specifically the way in which these two toxic aspects of our society co-mingle, and end up creating a society that ignores, devalues, and abandons poor and minority communities.
Now before I go any further, I want to first make it something clear because I just used some words that may be heard as controversial, or upsetting, or even angering—particularly the word “gun” and then a moment later the word “toxic.”
But to be clear, I did not say, “toxic-guns.”
I said gun-violence and inequality are toxic aspects of society.
I think we can all agree such is true.
Mass-shootings are toxic to our society, yes?
Inequality is toxic to our society, yes?
And both go against countless Biblical teachings, yes?
I want to be absolutely clear about this because I worry that inferences are being made about my position and my message.
I am not a gun owner—but I have nothing against legal gun owners.
I support the United States Constitution, and I am not writing my government representatives to encourage them to re-write the second amendment.
My message and focus is not about guns. I have enjoyed the results of many a hunter who have gifted me and my family their game.
This message—last week’s message—today’s Church Chat—are not to start a gun debate.
This is all to open our hearts to the systemic issues of violence, racism, fear, inequality, and how we as hearers of the word will further a message of hope and Good News.
I am not one to do disclaimers, but I felt moved to offer a deeper clarity because I believe that no matter our views about hot-topic issues, I believe we all want the same thing—To help bring God’s hope-filled vision of better days to those dwelling in the abyss that has convinced them there is no Good News.
That is what I believe we as a church are called to do.
And what better way to model working for such than in the Church where views differ, but we still share the same God given belief that this world can be better than it is.
And I believe people of faith, the Church, must be at the forefront of making the vision of God a reality.
This is what I aim for us to focus on.
I share all that because I get that this can sound divisive, but it does not have to be divisive. It should not be divisive. This is to unify us more than ever to be the Church God is calling us to be. What is that? That’s what I’m trying to lead us to.
So I did some research…and I studied God’s word…And that’s what I bring to you.
One article, a commentary by Gary Younge in The Nation, written in the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shootings, was particularly enlightening and instructive.
Younge critiques the culture of “shock” in relationship to gun violence in America, saying, “While violence like the massacre in Aurora is abhorrent, it is not at all shocking or random. Violence and death due to guns is part of the fabric of our country—it happens all the time, every day, it’s just that we don’t necessarily hear about it.”
Younge notes that the night after the Aurora shooting, twenty two people were shot, three fatally, in Chicago. He then cites how the Philadelphia organization GunCrisis, brings to light the seemingly ceaseless violence in that city, noting that in the four weeks after Aurora, there were more than 115 victims of gun violence in Philadelphia alone— and there were more than 140 shootings in the city of brotherly love in the month of August 2012 alone.
Younge goes on to debunk the notion that guns and gun access is the only thing responsible for the violence of our society. He points out there are other countries with a high number of gun ownership—countries like Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland— that do not have a high number of gun murders.
Younge writes, “What links America’s high concentration of guns and relatively high level of gun deaths are the country’s high levels of inequality, segregation and poverty.”
In his article, Younger says words that sting with painful truth: “There are places in America where you are supposed to be safe—shopping malls, suburban schools, cinemas— and there are places where people are expected to be vulnerable: poor black and Latino neighborhoods. The possibility of arbitrary death…is just understood as the price you pay for being black or Latino in America.”
The experience of reading this and really taking it in—was like having an air horn blown in my ear. I knew this in my head, but this past week, I began to know things in my heart and soul. And there is a difference between “knowing” with our minds, and “knowing” with our hearts and souls.
It is the difference between on the one hand, having some nebulous understanding of a national problem, and on the other hand, being present with the magnitude of what’s happening day to day, being affected by the stories and by the tragedy of it all. It is letting our hearts open to the pain of lost hope—to the pain of believing there is no Good News.
Amongst my research this week I listened to an interview with Marla Davis Bellamy, director of Cease-Fire Pennsylvania, who tells a story that speaks to the brokenness of a society in which violence is normalized.
She describes the scene a case worker witnessed on a street in Philadlephia. It was a nice summer day, people were sitting on stoops and about 100 kids were playing on a playground when suddenly, a young man took out a gun and opened fire. All the kids ducked and covered.
What happened next was far more striking. When the shooting stopped, the kids… simply got up and started playing again—like nothing happened. Not a single parent came out to take their child inside, not a single child ran home to take comfort or protection from an elder. No one reacted as if this was anything out of the ordinary.
Can we imagine if such a shooting happened at Water Works Park where we had a church picnic this summer?
Coming to a new understanding and opening my heart to these stories, and others, I’ve grown even more weary and even more angry. I am weary and angry that I live in a country in which people are dying every day, kids fear for their lives, and safety is elusive. I am ashamed and upset that I, an educated, progressive person who cares about the injustice of inequality, can live in such blissful ignorance of my own privilege, that I can so easily ignore this problem. I am deeply pained that we live in a society where poverty is a predictor of not only your future success but of your future survival.
I think all of us should be weary and angry—and pained and saddened by what goes on around our country. We should be angry that teenagers use guns because they feel they have no other way. We should be disturbed by the fact that our media mourns shootings that are deemed “out of the ordinary” but doesn’t take special note of the day after day murders happening in poor and primarily African-American neighborhoods. We should be saddened by the fact that children are “accustomed” to the sounds of gunshots and the rituals of funerals.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.”
But this is not where the wake-up call ends. This is where call begins. Being angry or frustrated or pained or dissatisfied can be a good thing—but only if it spurs us into action, only if we choose to take these raw emotions and channel them for something better, something that will give hope and will show there is Good News.
Being aware of the problem is an important step, but working toward a response—an outward sign of presence and awareness and solidarity is even more vital.
And that is what we will talk about today.
What are your raw emotions, and how are you feeling called to respond?
Do you have an idea what we might do?
What do you feel is needed to show our presence, our awareness, our solidarity that will convey a message of hope and Good News?
How will we be Hope-Tellers?
I anticipate what some of you may be thinking… “Jonathan, the actions of a small church will not truly alleviate the crisis in our our nation. This problem is too complicated, too entrenched for us to really make an impact.
I certainly understand this concern. I feel deeply the fatigue that comes when looking at problems that seem insurmountable.
But, in the face of the enormity and intractability of injustice and inequality, I take comfort and inspiration from the words of Jewish theologian and philosopher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said: “Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally; not only publicly, but also privately; not only occasionally, but regularly. What we need is the involvement of every one of us as individuals.”
As Heschel points to, it is not the task of someone else “over there” to change what needs to be changed—It is our task…
…Our task to remember it is not someone else’s responsibility to care for our neighbor: it is our responsibility.
…Our task to recognize that while we cannot necessarily complete the task, we are not free to abandon it.
So let’s talk about how we will live up to our task.
Let’s talk about how to be Hope-Tellers.
Let’s talk about sharing a message like the message Jesus shared in his sermon on the Mount—a message of a new vision of what it means to be children of God. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, August 25, 2019
God of new life, when we are in the abyss this world often pulls us deep within… You are present with us. And oh how we give you thanks for this truth.
Yet we have to admit that sometimes we fall asleep to this truth O God. We fall asleep to the broader realities that are never as far as we want to believe.
So help us we pray…Help us awaken out of our sleep!
Help us be able to fully listen, to be present with what is difficult and challenging in our city and in our world so that we can be true and faithful witnesses.
Help us look at our souls and turn toward a way of active living, as Hope-Tellers, who are ready to share a word of Good News to those who have come to believe there is none.
Help us look inside and consider what each one of us can do to better our neighborhood, our city, our world, and then give us the courage and fortitude to act to make it happen.
Help us turn toward problems and not away from them, facing the reality that this world is not as you intend, and that we have a responsibility to not only acknowledge such, but to keep working to make life better for all.
Help us examine our deeds and better our ways! Help us hear your call to action for this church, and may those actions, no matter how seemingly small, inspire us, our neighbors, and our community to join together to share the hope that new life is possible.
Help further the reach of this church by broadening the message of hope you give to us to share, by emboldening us expand the extension of the blessings you give to us so that we are able to further your blessings of equality, justice, and peace for all who dwell on earth.
May that be the presence of Good News we reveal in the abyss to those who have come to believe there is no Good News.
Hear now the prayers of our hearts as we offer them in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of the one who assures new life for all, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, who taught us to pray, saying, “Our…”