November 29, 2015–1st Sunday of Advent
Gun violence; the death penalty; war; and environmental degradation.
How’s that for Christmas spirit? Those are our topics for Advent: not because the worship committee is a bunch of Grinches; not because I want to preach doom and gloom. These are our topics for worship because they are topics of our lives. We are bombarded by news reports of violence and injustice and atrocities every day.
Our culture—our world—seems death-obsessed. But we worship a life-giving God. So we need to think about the death-dealing forces in our world not just in the dreary weekday news feeds, but also in the light of our Sunday faith, our resurrection faith, our Advent faith.
Our Advent faith means that God enters our world as one of us. That God speaks into, lives into, the darkest places of our world, bringing divine light and life.
One of those dark places in this country is definitely excessive gun violence. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword; and this country that lives by guns is dying by guns.
The U.S. Leads the world in mass shootings; the U.S. firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.
–Let’s now observe 1 second of silence for every person who dies from gun violence in this country every day. (89)
Statistics can be hard to get our heads around, but we’ve heard about plenty of individual cases. We’ve heard the news reports of mass shootings at schools, workplaces, even a church; the reports dominating the news right now of police officers shooting and killing people—disproportionately people of color–who were posing no immediate threat—video of Laquan McDonald, 17 years old, killed in Chicago; protests in Minneapolis over the shooting death of Jamal Clark; and of course the recent shooting of four of the Minneapolis BLM protesters—and since I first drafted this sermon there was a shooting at Planned Parenthood in CO Springs and a man who shot his waitress in Biloxi, MI because she asked him to put out his cigarette.
And despite the dire situation, gun sales continue to rise, people continue to fight gun regulations.
I could go on and on about the need for sane gun laws in this country, the evils of glorifying gun violence in movies and video games and TV shows. There are so very many things that need to be said; so many angles from which we need to view this problem and act toward solutions.
But we don’t have time to look at all the angles. And since I’m a pastor and we’re in church, I’m going to focus on the faith angle. How do our holy scriptures speak into the horror of gun violence in our country?
Of course, the Bible does not specifically address issue of gun control, but there is a lot in scripture that speaks to various aspects of our problem with guns—scripture about how to deal with fear; about how to respond to violence; about how we should live in community.
We talked about fear last week, hearing words from 1 Peter: “Do not fear what they fear and do not be intimidated.” Obviously fear is part of what fuels our obsession with guns in this country. And it is a never-ending cycle: there are lots of guns out there so people are fearful and go buy more guns. It is a skewed and deadly logic that can only be stopped if we can interrupt the fear. The good news is that as followers of Jesus, we have been called out of fear and into the promise of God’s eternal and abundant life.
The Bible also addresses how we are to respond to violence—Jesus in particular addresses this, but you already knew that—being Mennonite and all. The story we heard about Jesus’ arrest, while not particularly addressing the issues of guns (which wouldn’t be invented for 13 centuries), is pretty clear about what Jesus thinks of retaliating with weapons. “Put away your sword,” says Jesus. And in Luke’s version of the story Jesus heals the servant’s ear that Peter has cut off.
Jesus refuses to meet violence with violence because he knows that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword;” he recognizes the need to interrupt the cycle of violence, no matter what the cost—and the cost for him was great, indeed.
There is also a lot in scripture about living in community—especially in the letters written by early church leaders to various congregations. Let’s listen again to some of Paul’s words to the church in Rome:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty.
Do not be haughty. Let me replace haughty with a word that gets more use these days: Do not feel entitled. Now the problems of entitlement—and with much sensitivity to the present crowd I will say particularly problems of white and middle-class and male entitlement—reach beyond the issue of gun violence, but are certainly part of our gun problem. Did the man in the Biloxi Waffle House believe he was entitled to smoke in a non-smoking restaurant? The NRA certainly believes that Americans are entitled to have as many of whatever kinds of guns they want. The assumed white supremacists who shot four BLM protestors in Minneapolis feel they have more right to freedom of speech and assembly that black people do.
Racism is connected to gun violence in horrifying and sinful ways in this country. At dinner the other night I was telling Ryan about the video of the police officer shooting the young man in the middle of the street. Yes, the man had a knife, but he was walking away from the police; he was not posing an immediate threat to anyone. And the officer simply opened fire and shot him sixteen times.
“Was the man who was shot black?” asked Grace. “Was the officer white.”
If you want to live well in community, do not be haughty. Do not act entitled. None of us has the right to take the life of another. But carrying around a loaded handgun suggests otherwise.
And Paul continues:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves.
The way of the world seems to be to repay evil for evil. The way of video games and TV shows and movies is certainly to repay evil for evil. But if we want to live in healthy, loving communities, we have to be willing to stop the cycle.
Those who seek retaliation and revenge have plenty of role models—from the Terminator (“I’ll be back.”) to Inigo Montoya (“You killed my father, prepare to die.”)
But those of us who want to stop the cycle of violence also have role models. As Christians, Jesus is our primary example. Though we don’t have to look that far back in history. I’m thinking of the Parents’ Circle Families Fourm that I told the kids about earlier. People whose children have been killed yet they find the courage and the grace to reach out in peace, to speak out for an end to the violence. I think of the BLM protesters, most of whom are black and have endured lifetimes of discrimination and violence and injustice; who are demonized and gassed and arrested and shot at and still remain peaceful in their protests.
Yes, our country’s obsession with guns is deadly. It is overwhelming. It is sinful.
And yet, this morning, on the first Sunday of Advent, we have lit the candle of hope. We claim hope in the midst of our gun crisis because Advent reminds us that God–who is coming, who has come, in Jesus—is a God of life. It is God who creates, redeems, and sustains life. It is God who calls us through Jesus and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to live into the Divine life even—and especially—in the face of the deadly forces of the world.