It is good to be back here with you on this second Sunday of Lent. Last Sunday I was in Washington DC with my family. We planned the trip a few months ago, and the centerpiece of our trip was seeing the Religion in Early America exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which features our wooden Bishop’s Miter finial and Bishop Bass’s prayer book. The curator of that exhibit, Peter Manseau, gave us a personal tour, and sent me back to you with a beautiful hardcover book of pictures and commentary on all the holy artifacts shown there. It will be on the table at coffee hour if you are interested in looking at it, and copies of the pages related to our artifacts are in the Bell Tower entryway as well.
So, it was good to be away, especially knowing that our parish was in the able hands of our Deacon, Jay Jordan – thank you Jay – but I am also relieved to be back among you as we all once again try to make sense of what is going on in our country. Once again we have been shaken by another high profile mass shooting, this time in Florida at the Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland – may those who died there know the abundant life of God’s full reign. And sadly this is not an isolated occurrence. If we drill down a bit deeper than the high profile events in the news, we find that there have been at least 5 incidents of shootings in schools that caused injury or death since January, and at least 10 more incidents where guns were fired on school grounds but no one was hurt – hurt physically that is – it is harder to measure the psychological injury that is going on.
If you have been listening to me preach for very long, you will likely be aware that I am a strong supporter of gun control efforts. This is based in my sense that the commandment “Though shalt not kill” and Jesus injunction to “Love your enemies” does not leave much room for us shooting a weapon of deadly force at anyone. I believe guns are a major problem in our society. I do understand that guns in and of themselves do not kill anyone – they need a human to fire them – but I don’t find that a convincing argument for the prevalence and easy availability of guns among us. After all, a person armed with a knife is not able to kill 17 people in rapid succession the way someone with a gun was, a week and a half ago.
But our most recent gun related tragedies, have made me recognize that holding my opinion and stance with a sort of righteous indignation, simply writing off opposing opinions, is not what I am called to by God. What I have been hearing God call me to do recently is to hold on to my convictions, but to be curious about and listen carefully to good and faithful people who hold different perspectives than I do on these matters. Again the Holy Spirit has broken through and shown me that staying isolated in our silos or camps of opinion is not going to get any of us where we need to go. So I have been trying to listen carefully to the reasoning behind perspectives that differ from mine. One thing that I have come to understand is that many gun owners and proponents of second amendment rights, feel that owning firearms is the best way to protect themselves from other people who might wish to do harm to them or their family members.
That understanding led me to try to mentally put myself in their place. So I closed my eyes and imagined waking in the night and seeing an armed intruder in my home threatening me and my family. I felt the fear of that scenario take hold of my stomach, and make me shake in my boots. And I forced myself to wonder “If I had a gun available to me in that situation would I pick it up and use it?” My answer to that question is no. However this scenario and this question have made me face the fact that my perspective on gun ownership and my stance of non-violence are untested on this personal level. This difficult exercise has made me understand that for many gun owners the basis of their desire to have guns available in our society comes from the basic human drive to survive – a very human drive that is hard wired into all of us.
I hear the same drive to survive in the Gospel this morning – in Peter’s response to Jesus predictions of what was just down the road they were traveling together. Jesus speaks of the authorities in Jerusalem rejecting him, and then he says he will be killed… and I bet that is where Peter stopped listening. I bet that is where he flipped into his amygdala and his fight of flight reaction took over – he probably didn’t even take in the fact that Jesus said he would rise again on the third day. He just hears what seems like very bad news and reacts- rebuking Jesus – saying “no – there has to be a way for you, and for us to survive this looming threat.” This is a classic hardwired response of humanity in the face of threat – the drive to survive.
This all makes me think that this very human drive to survive may in fact be the common ground in our current debate over guns. The drive to survive may be the place, the common ground, where we can all stand to start to work on this issue together. Those who support gun ownership do so out of a desire to keep themselves and their families safe. Those of us who support gun control do so out of a desire to keep ourselves and our families safe. Now I know there are a lot of other complex reasons that people hold these and other positions all along the spectrum in between, but the drive to survive is common to all of them. My respectful yet urgent question for those who support gun ownership is, what happens when the thing they trust most to keep us safe, to help us survive, boomerangs on us? Shouldn’t we change course when the presence of guns is so clearly having the opposite effect – when it puts us or other members of the human family more at risk of death? When our fellow human beings are senselessly killed en mass in night clubs, at music festivals, in churches, in their work places and in our children’s schools, or one by one on our city streets, or in their own homes by their own firearms, sometimes at their own hand? It seems to me the thing we might have seen as the best form of protection has become anything but.
As a Christian I am constantly called to look beyond myself for protection and real power. As a follower of Christ Jesus I am called to rise each day and put my will and my life into God’s loving and caring hands, so that I might be led by God for God’s most loving purposes. Do I do this easily? Uh-uh!! But I do the best I can at the start of each day. And by the way, I feel free to begin my day over as many times as I need to. Because every day without fail I hit bumps in the road. Someone or something threatens my sense of safety or security and my hardwired human response is to take my will back and to begin trusting in my limited perspective and plans, more than in God’s power and purposes. Once I realize what’s going on I do my best to remember to hit the reset. Do you know what I mean? Have you been where I’ve been with this? I see a few heads nodding! That basic human drive to survive is hard wired in for good reason, but it is not meant to be the only faculty we live by in the life of faith.
And Jesus brings that point home to Peter in our Gospel passage. In response to his rebuke, Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me Satan for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Now that is pretty strong language! But as Emily Heath notes in a commentary on this passage that she wrote for The Christian Century Magazine recently,
The Hebrew equivalent of the word Jesus calls Peter is ha-satan, which doesn’t mean ‘devil’ at all. It’s not even a proper name really. It simply means ‘the accuser’ or ‘the adversary.’ Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is evil incarnate. Peter is being an adversary. He is standing between Jesus and God’s plan. So Jesus tells him, ‘Get behind me.’ Put your protests aside and get in line. Don’t oppose me, I have to do this.” (CC, Jan 31, 2018, p. 21)
I pray this example will help me and all of us be strong yet gracious in our interactions with those who oppose our perspectives – which are after all so much more incomplete and earth bound than Jesus’s perspective. If Jesus did not think of or describe an opponent as evil incarnate, as his followers we should resist that temptation in his name.
The invitation Jesus firmly extends to Peter to “Get behind” him is also an invitation to see what he is seeing. Facing Jesus and opposing him means that Peter cannot see what Jesus is seeing – physically and spiritually. Getting behind Jesus and facing the direction he is facing, gives Peter and every follower the chance to glimpse the glory that leads Jesus on, even through despair, suffering, anguish and death. The glory that can do the same for us as we stand with Jesus on the common ground of ever growing trust in God’s goodness and abundant love. May we daily, prayerfully seek to fit all of our earth bound perspective in line behind him.
In coming weeks I will be out in the streets as often as I can following our teens and young adults – seeking to support them in their prophetic calls for laws that I believe will keep us all more safe, secure, alive. But as I do so, I will remember Christ’s words, “Love your enemies” which I have come to see means listening carefully to people who hold opposing views, engaging them with curiosity and care. And I will remember the example he set with Peter, inviting others to see what he sees – God’s love and faithfulness – the ultimate security and power which is available to us, no matter what, when we make trust in God our first line of defense.
The day after the Parkland shootings I had the great good fortune of hearing one of my sister Dean’s, The Rev. Kate Malin, preach on this gospel passage. I want to close this sermon with the hopeful words she ended her sermon with that day. Kate said:
In these days of Lent let our mouths be open and full. Full of songs of lament and love. Full of praise for a God who invites our complaints and tantrums as well as our hopes and rapturous delight. We, like poets and songwriters, have the words the world needs. The sounds, the melody, the meaning. Yes, words are not enough, yes, it is time to act, no question about it, but first we put our trust in God, we stoop to gather up in our arms the very thing that has the power to destroy us, and we lift it to God, opening our mouths to sing our song of hope.
Hope for heartache and fury to be transformed into deeds of righteousness, not just remembrance. Hope that meets the skeptics’ question “Where is your God now?” with the clear and confident reply, “My God is in a Florida High School, on the streets of Charlottesville, in a first-grade classroom. My God is with displaced Puerto Ricans, victims of sexual violence, at an LGBT dance club on Latin night. My God is always with the persecuted and the vulnerable. My God suffers with those whose flesh is torn and whose lives are recklessly, callously snuffed out. My God doesn’t discriminate. My God is light and truth, and I am going to follow and be part of righting the wrongs of this terrible, beautiful world.” A world that thirsts for the living God. A God who says to all creation, “Fear not. Choose life. Follow me.”
In Christ’s name and for his sake. Amen+