[from a sermon preached at South Euclid United Church of Christ on August 16, 2015 on their God and Guns Sunday.]
On any given day in this great country that we love and call our home …
88 people will be shot and killed. 7 of them are likely to be children. At least 30 of those deaths will be murders. 50 will be suicides. 151 more will be treated for a gunshot wound in an emergency room.
On any given day …
The US firearms homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 developed nations who are our peers in wealth and population.
On any given day …
If you wanted to buy a gun, one would be easy to find. Wal-Mart. Dick’s Sporting Goods. But if you didn’t want to take the time or the risk of a background check, you could buy a gun at a gun show or online. You could buy a gun on Instagram.
On any given day …
One out of three Americans knows someone who has been shot.
Among US teen-agers, you’d find that one in five of them have witnessed a shooting.
In this past year when I have been invited to speak with Cleveland high-schoolers, I have asked them a series of questions beginning with: Do you know anyone in your family or your circle of friends who has been shot? Most every hand goes up. Raise your hand if you have seen a gun in the last 30 days? Again, most every hand. And for the final question: if you wanted to get a gun, would you be able to get your hands on one? Every single teen-ager raised his or her hand. Giving me the equivalent answer to, well, duh, of course I can get my hands on a gun if I wanted to, Pastor Kris! That’s easier than getting a smartphone.
The picture you see on the screen was at a rally last May. The young woman at the microphone was reading names of Cleveland children who have been shot and killed. She wanted to read her brother’s name – a teen-ager shot and killed by a policeman in March. Her brother had just broken into a convenience store in his neighborhood and stolen a pack of cigarettes. He was alone and unarmed when he was shot. What no one, including this young woman, realized was she would know 3 of the first 5 names on the list.
On any given day …
There could be a school shooting. Somewhere. There have been over 100 since Sandy Hook 2 ½ years ago. The school shooting that got me moving on the gun violence issue was at Chardon High School, 3 years ago. I was pastor to some teen-agers who were in the Chardon high school cafeteria that morning when the shots rang out. Thank God they were not injured, but the killing of 3 teen-agers happened in front of their eyes. I was with those kids later that same Monday. It was that day I found out that every single one of the kids in our youth group, high school and junior high, had been on lockdown at their schools (Cleveland, Shaker, Euclid, SE-Lyndhurst –all of them). Guns in lockers. Shootings in the neighborhood surrounding the schools. It’s not just that our kids know the lockdown drill – they know it to be real. The killing of 20 first graders, their teachers and principal, at Sandy Hook Elementary happened not even a year after.
On any given day …
You could decide to spend a few bucks and a couple of hours at the Cineplex. Take in that new movie, Trainwreck with that famous basketball player. What’s his name? Two women in Lafayette, Louisiana did just that on Thursday, July 23, and they are now dead. This happening just 2 weeks after the trial ended for the shooter who killed 12 and injured another 70 in a theater in Aurora, CO.
On any given day …
You could find a man carrying a gun inside a Wal-Mart. Openly, slung across his shoulder. It could already be loaded, or he could buy ammunition, load it right there and cock it. It’s been done, and it’s legal.
In another Wal-Mart, you could find a young black man who picked up a toy gun from Wal-Mart shelves, shot and killed by police responding to a false accusation on a 911 call. That happened too, just outside of Columbus, OH to John Crawford. His last words were: It’s not real.
On any given day …
Communities of color will bear the brunt of gun violence.
Black men are 10 times as likely to be murdered with a gun as white man. Black women, 3 times as likely to be murdered as white women. And for the age population of black males, 18 to 34, gun homicide is the leading cause of death.
On any given day …
Any woman is at risk if there is an unsecured gun in the home, especially if there has been a pattern of domestic violence. Nine women every week die at the wrong end of a gun, and over 50% of them are murdered by their intimate partners. Just last Sunday, an ex-partner broke into his former home in Houston and murdered 5 children and their mama and 2 other adults in the home. The killer had served time on a domestic violence charge and was banned from owning a gun. The gun he used he purchased without background check on line.
On any given day…
There is the possibility of a shooting in a house of worship. In 2014, there were 176 deaths at a religious institution and over 60% of those deaths involved a gun. Until this summer, the last mass killing we remembered was at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee in 2012 in which 6 people lost their lives and 4 others were wounded.
Until Wednesday, June 17, when 9 people were gunned down at a mid-week bible study. Gunned down by a man who had been elcomed into their fellowship for an hour before he started shooting.
And yet, on any given day …
State legislatures like ours here in Ohio will be considering, passing, and governors will be signing laws that will have even fewer restrictions on guns than the few that are in place. In the fall, Ohio will be voting on its version of a Guns Everywhere bill, and strengthening another Stand Your Ground bill. You know about Stand Your Ground or Kill at Will – those laws passed in 22 states that are associated with a 53% increase in what’s called a justifiable homicide, particularly among African Americans. Like Trayvon.
Gun Violence is hotly debated as a political issue, but it’s our position that gun violence is a public health crisis. And not just a public health crisis, but an assault on the sanctity of life. But if the halls of Congress and our state legislatures are where these decisions about the sanctity of life are being made, people of faith need to be there and vocal.
On any given day …
It is estimated that there are as many as 310 million guns in our country. That’s about 1 gun per person, except the population figure includes children and whole lot of people who don’t own any. All this uproar – and all this violence – comes from guns (sometimes lots of guns) in just 37% of American households.
All of this I know because since my retirement from active pastoral ministry 6 months ago, I have been engaged in full-time activism in the name of ending gun violence. My husband David Eggert and I founded the organization God Before Guns. SEUCC was gracious enough to God Before Guns is a multi-faith coalition of individuals and faith communities working to reduce gun violence. We envision and are working to be a nation in which our faith in God and each other elevates the sanctity of life above the fears that lead to a society armed against itself.
I bring the voice of that organization to the pulpit this morning but I also bring a pastor’s heart. I feel called to be a voice for those families I pastored, but as a Christian leader, I must bring that voice for all children. And long before I was a pastor, I was a mom, and now I’m a grandmother. I will honor all children’s lives by speaking out.
Which brings me to this morning’s text. I rarely preach from Revelation. This morning it’s not because I believe the Apocalypse is near. I’m not here to prepare us for the hereafter. I preach from the text in this way: as a lens through which we view our history and as a gateway to a greater understanding of our current reality. Our reality is not so very different from those early Christians – it’s both divine and human, spiritual and political, and a whole lot of our reality is hard for us to understand. God helps us make sense of it all. I believe that when Revelation says this is what must happen soon – it’s a wake-up call, it’s a flashlight shining in our eyes, it’s a tap on the shoulder, if not a full-blown shove into responding to what’s going on in our world.
What’s going on is that John received a revelation from Jesus, and he passes it along in letters to six different churches. The portion I read this morning just happens to be the most negative of the six. Sometimes letters (like the ones Paul wrote to the churches) begin with praise for something before they get to the nitty-gritty. Not this time. There’s no mention to this church of a job well done before he gets down to the tough words. He says, lukewarm? Tell me about how that’s working. I can even understand cold. Cold is when you’re still in the dark about God through Jesus Christ. But you folks say you know Jesus, and when you say you believe, when you promise to follow, you can no longer be excused to be cold. And don’t even talk to me about being lukewarm.
The first century church folks had this letter read to them one Sunday morning. Can you picture how much squirming was going on in those pew chairs? You know how you know something about yourself and you just hope it’s not obvious to anyone else? They had to know they’d gotten comfortable and complacent. They got that way by compromise. Compromise with the culture outside of church. There’s a name for that in the bible – it’s called idolatry. It’s idolatry when we worship what we see outside of the life Christ calls us too, more than we worship the God who sent him.
It’s idolatry that God Before Guns is fighting. We believe that guns have attained the status of idols in our country. We are not against gun ownership, and we are not anti-2nd Amendment. What we abhor is how the 2nd Amendment is worshipped in our country. Over and above the 1st commandment of Thou shalt have no other gods before me, and the 2nd Commandment of thou shalt not make any graven image, and the 6th Commandment of thou shalt not kill. Where is God in the 2nd Amendment? I hear all the time — owning a gun is my God-given right. It is not.
Idolatry isn’t just about guns or any particular golden calf, it’s is about blindly following the values of our culture. Before we know God, how else would we behave? But once we do, …. Isn’t that why we are baptized? To symbolically die to our old way of life – saying no to the gods who seduced us into following them – and rising up out of the waters in order to commit ourselves to a new way of living? Isn’t that why we continue to study the stories of Jesus again and again, to learn from his counter-cultural message, and to model his activism against the status quo? Isn’t that the challenge of our churches to lead the way in valuing all life – most especially those whose lives are at risk – calling us to be workers in the field that grows wholeness and the fruits of justice and peace, helping to restore this world to the one God created for us?
Granted, it’s easier to live a lukewarm life. What can one person do to change things? It’s much easier to make friends when we don’t engage in talk about how we can’t do something – or how we can’t NOT say something because — Jesus! We care too much about what other people think, when we ought to be considering, what does God think about us? It’s in Luke that we read the words: Woe to you when all speak well of you.
I can honestly say that not all speak well of me. The internet and social media can be a very hateful place for any woman who dares to challenge those who believe that the answer is always more guns. I’ve been part of peaceful demonstrations that are protected by the First Amendment when the other side shows up, and the other side is armed. With a handgun on their hip or an assault rifle slung over their shoulder, they say they are there to educate us.
As a clergywoman, I get some pretty random scriptures thrown at me to prove that God expects us to protect ourselves. I’ve been told that the commandment is not thou shalt not kill – it’s thou shalt not murder. Fine line of a distinction sometimes. It’s an ugly other side – google Jesus and guns sometime and see what comes up. People twist Jesus’ words about the disciples carrying swords to say that he’d now want them to be armed with assault rifles and to shoot back.
But, the Jesus I follow sweat tears preaching the Beatitudes. The Jesus I follow fed people, he didn’t shoot them. The Jesus I follow taught us not to fear anyone or anything, but to trust in God. The Jesus I follow told Peter to put down his sword when that could have saved him from death on the cross, and we want to talk about defending ourselves?
I cannot believe that God intends for us to be so afraid of each other – especially those who do not look like us – that we must be armed at all times. What kind of gun would Jesus carry? He wouldn’t. This kind of talk is not Jesus talk.
I’ll tell you this. I’ve found a new normal in body temperature. When I am actively doing this work that I believe God calls me to do, if you were to take my temperature? I think it would register well above 98.6. Is it warm in here? I know it’s a muggy summer day in August, but can you feel the temperature rising? Is your temperature rising?
What if a current-day prophet had a revelation from Jesus Christ, and decided to write your church a letter? Could he or she start off in this way? I can’t say you’re doing everything right, but thumbs up for the heat that you are generating. I can feel it. Your temperature is rising so much that it’s being felt outside this building. Heat like that is contagious.
I have felt that heat from your pastor and from this congregation. Your pastor linked arms with other clergy in a downtown march for criminal justice reform in Cleveland in the wake of the murder of Tamir Rice. There were several others of you there that day as well. Last December you opened your sanctuary to Lucy McBath, mother of Jordan Davis who was killed for playing his music too loud outside a convenience store, a couple of Novembers ago in Florida. Good for you. You are generating heat, and that heat brings hope, and that hope brings change.
I for one believe that positive change is possible, because I believe in the Gospel. The Gospel is all about change. It is the epitome of change for the better. My prayer is that temperatures will continue to rise for positive change in our country and for those fevers to spread among the lukewarm and even out in the cold corners where people do not yet know God. We could start an epidemic.
We could. Temperatures have been rising since Charleston, and praise God some have been engaged in this work for generations, while many others are just getting started. We mustn’t revert to being comfortable and complacent as long as 88 people are dying every day. People of faith must register the highest temperatures and we must lead the way. After all, we’re the ones who got that letter!
Hear the good news. On any given day, just as we heard in this morning’s scripture, even when Jesus may not be real happy about our lukewarm approach, he still knocks. If we open the door to him, he’ll come in. He’ll stay long enough to break bread at the table with us, and he’ll leave behind his Spirit. His Spirit of Peace. His peace that transcends time and place, and replaces our limited human nature with a peace that is beyond our understanding. The peace that he lived and expects us to live in his name.
On any given day, Praise God, may it be so.
Pastor. Parent. Activist.