Today I will preach the Third Word at the Seven Last Words of Christ ecumenical Good Friday service in Cleveland Heights. I appreciate the invitation each year. This year in the wake of the Newtown Shootings and my church’s commitment to ending gun violence as a priority ministry, I was especially appreciative to have this forum today. And I was even more grateful for God’s Holy Spirit leading me to some helpful resources, guiding my hand in writing and my voice in speaking, and for the tears that flow as I share it with you.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother. “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. John 19:25-27
We’re here today to grieve the death of an adult child. Adult child a strange pair of words. No longer a small child who needs our care and protection. Rather an adult who we expect to be independent, to live away from his parents, maybe even to have a family of his or her own. But that adult remains an adult child, no matter how old, to that child’s parents. The impact of the death of an adult child is profound regardless of how close or strained the relationship, or how far apart they lived, whether the death was anticipated or sudden. No parent wants this to happen, it happens.
It happens. It happens far too often. 27 year old Dominic Davis was shot to death just this January in his neighborhood. A neighborhood named Capitol View – named for its panoramic view of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. His, the first shooting death of the year in Washington DC. Though just days after, 13 people were wounded in a drive-by shooting just a couple of miles north. They shoot and don’t ask questions, says Saybo Williams, 19, whose older brother Jerry was shot and killed last summer in Capitol View. In this area of fewer than 10 square miles, 19 lives were lost to gun violence last year and 55 more were wounded. It is bitter irony that while gun laws are debated on the Hill – it is a Hill that is sight and yet here in the shadows, it is also so remote. Policy makers don’t live in communities like ours, says an activist in the neighborhood..
I can’t count on my hands the number of kids who used to be on that corner that are now dead, said Richard Hamilton, 74, a longtime resident,. He and others walked these streets in the early 1990’s holding three hour marches every night to get drug dealers off them. For that brief time, the violence slowed. Afterward they came right back out. They’re shooting over here, and they’re shooting over there. These guys, they get guns and pass them around from one person to the next. Not far away, a small mound of teddy bears and candles fastened to a stop sign marks the gun death of 24 year old Jermile Damon Davis. Overhead there’s a pair of dingy white Asics already hanging from the power lines right above his body – hung there in memory of another adult who was shot to death in the neighborhood. They could have shoes hanging up and down this entire power line. All the shooting, Hamilton shakes his head.
Washington DC. Chicago. Cleveland. We don’t even have to say the name Sandy Hook aloud because we are already thinking about 20 children who were shot to death long before they could grow to be young adults. And, 6 others who died – who had parents who knew them as their adult children..
Gun violence has a lot to do with Good Friday. It was on this day that Jesus and his small band of disciples were ambushed by a group of armed Roman soldiers in the garden of Gethsemane. Maybe Peter wanted Jesus to fight back with armed resistance and that’s why Peter pulled out his sword. But Jesus disarmed him. The early church believed that by disarming Peter, Jesus acted to disarm all Christians.
Jesus didn’t fight back with a weapon, but he didn’t cower or run away. He stood up against his enemies, and he did so without violence. Hanging there alone on the cross, Jesus prayed for his enemies even as they mocked him. We knew then – and I pray we know it still — that this was a very different sort of kingdom and a very different sort of power.
Jesus speaks also with the voice of a protective adult child. He is human. And he is watching his mother watching him die. As he neared his last breath, part of her physical self would soon be gone as well – for in watching her son die, she was watching the body that grew within her not so many years ago. Ask any mother of an adult child – 30 years goes by quickly.
On December 14 when we learned that 20 first graders had died not able to run from the hundreds of bullets fired in just five minutes time – was your first reaction one of wanting to know that your own family was safe? Did you say a prayer of gratitude when your children hopped off the bus and into your arms? Did you send a text message to your adult children that day just wanting them to know that you loved them? And felt a sense of relief when they texted back? When disaster strikes, when crisis happens – we are grateful when we can say, at least my family is ok.
But that was not to be for Jesus and his mother. The words he uttered were parting words. God’s son who was dying for a cause – but also the adult son of Mary for whom no cause seemed great enough to sacrifice flesh and blood family. Our remarkable Jesus – our loving Savior — knew that the only way through the grief was in the creation of a new family.
And so, with what God-given strength he had left, he called out to his friend to take his mother in. His friend who was also his disciple.
Disciples. Isn’t that what we call ourselves?
Today. Good Friday. Today is 15 weeks to the day from the Newtown shootings. During this three hour stretch of service, likely more people will die on the wrong end of a powerful weapon.
We are doing the work of family inside here this afternoon. Even though as I look out from this pulpit, I know few of your names, we are family all the same. But the work of this family is also outside our doors. Today in Philadelphia, a Stations of the Cross service will take to the streets as it has now for several years. They say Good Friday just makes a lot more sense when seen through the nitty-gritty streets of a noisy city than the sanitized walls of a quiet sanctuary. This year they will gather outside a gun shop – a gun shop named one of the ten worst gun dealers in the country due to the number of handguns it sells traced to crimes, selling to straw purchasers who keep the cycle of violence alive as more adult children die. Asking only that the owner sign the same Code of Conduct that Wal-Mart recently agreed to, something that to this point he has refused. Today, Jesus’ family of disciples will stand outside the shop’s doors to pray and sing remembering the children who have died – itty bitty ones and all grown up ones. Because when one of us grieves, we all grieve.
It’s been said that America is a move-on society. We can already sense that our country has forgotten the events of December 14, and they don’t even want to know about the other killings that do not justify headlines. We don’t like to sit with things. Especially unpleasant things. I suppose that’s one reason why church pews will be packed this Easter Sunday and today, it’s just us. Because today is just hard. I’m just not at all sure that we are called to soften it even a little. Sometimes, we need to sit with things. And then we stand.
A poet writes:
There are many doorways, many openings, through which the dishonorable pours.
Blood flows from countless wounds. I cannot pray by every hurt.
But I can stand at this one and I can trust this one door stands for all:
All love, all healing, all health, one holy body – who calls out from the cross for us to accept and live out what family means in Jesus Christ.