Isaiah 2: 2-5 and John 14: 22-27
It’s now been 5 weeks since Sandy Hook. …and we’re slumping back into worrying that the incredibly violent incidents seem to becoming more frequent. “But, thank God,” we reassure ourselves, “they are the exception to the rule.”
But are they? Or are they only larger in scale? …More horrific in their number of simultaneous victims and therefore grabbing greater media print space and air time.
There’s this thing we do, people, a self-protective trick: we pay attention to the mass atrocities, but ignore the day in and day out killing. I suspect it’s not just something that happens, not neutral, or innocent, or by accident.
We want to believe violence happens in rare, almost unexplainable flashes. And even if not as rare as in the past, we can feel safe as long as we understand it still an exception. Whether or not, we choose to see it that way.
And then we go on to seek explanations, causes, ways of seeing some logic in irrational violence, try to make sense of the killings at Sandy Hook last month, at a workplace in Minnesota in September, at the Sikh Temple in August, at the movie theater in Colorado in July…
There’s something insulating in these strategies, particularly coupled together. You can see it in the news stories that retell these incidents as incomprehensibly, out of the ordinary, events worthy of special-coverage.
If you follow the story lines carefully, you will the second narrative device as well. Or maybe it’s a psychological defense. These horrific incidents are reported, non-stop on the special coverage additions of all the news outlets, and there’s plenty of time to go looking for a culprit. But that impulse, it’s not just to fill the time. I think, rather, it’s part of the argument to looking for a culprit.
There’s the shooter. It’s almost always males, isn’t it? But often the shooter is not a sufficient cause or explanation in himself. Somehow he’s not a good enough cipher for the blame to conquer our fear. So we look for something bigger, the motivation and cause and some explanation of his incomprehensible acts.
It’s a scapegoat really. A scapegoat is a religious term, of course, from the days when Judaism practiced animal sacrifice. The scapegoat is the animal that gets sent into the woods after the priest has placed all the people’s sins on it.
And so something horrible, extraordinarily evil has occurred, and we want to distance ourselves. Guard our lives, but also purify ourselves. Wash our hands really. We look for something to hang all the blame and insecurity on.
That we might regain our own sense of safety. Our wholeness. Our own innocence, if you will. So the threat is corralled, separated, sacrificed.
We come up with something to blame the violence on? A mother who had too many guns in the house. Or mental illness. Or racial or religious hatred. Political alienation or extremism. (Notice that with extremism– what we’re really saying, “That’s not like me or related to me in any way; it’s as far away from me as possible.)
The list is almost unlimited, and says much about the political moment or the perspectives of the people making list than it does necessarily about attack itself.
But focusing on the extraordinary incidents of violence and ferreting out explanations avoids a more basic question: is violence in our society really exceptional?
Or asked another way, are these mass shootings really so different from or unrelated to killing that goes on daily?
There are other ways the U.S. is one of the world’s most violent nations. But today, I’m going to stay on point and talk about about guns on our streets and victims in the morgue.
I’m not going to let me self get all knotted up and tied down in the extenuating circumstances either. They matter. How people end up so violent or hopeless or out of control. We could talk about suicide too. And why drugs are popular in general, and play themselves out differently in difference communities.
I could also talk about the glorification of violence. About movies and t.v. and video games.
But at the end of the day, over 1,000 people, God’s own children — whether their lives were clean or not, whether they were good or bad… at the end of the day over 1,000 of God’s precious children have been shot and killed in the U.S. in since Sandy Hook.
In December, there were 105 people shot (though not necessarily killed) by guns in Philadelphia.
The youngest victims included a four-year-old boy, wounded in an incident in which his father was also shot. And two girls, ages four and eight were injured in separate accidental shootings.
The list also includes a 14 year old girl and three adult woman, one of whom was shot to death.
23 of the victims were pronounced dead on the same day they were shot. 17 were initially reported in critical condition.
The December gun violence tally represents a steep rise from 64 incidents, 68 victims and 17 fatalities of November.
But lower than then 111 shot in October and 140 in August.
There were 331 homicides in Philadelphia last year.
My point, if you can see it through all the faceless numbers, is that this violence in our society isn’t occasional or extraordinary. It’s almost daily. Endemic. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s part of the fabric of our lives here together in our city.
And our focusing on its surges may well be a ruse so we don’t have to look at how it is also common place. In a month in Philly, every month in Philly, as many people are shot as were in Sandy Hook. 12 months a year!
It’s estimated that there are 350 million guns in this country. That’s enough for each of us to have our own, babies too. Or another, more conservative figure has it that there are 88 guns for every 100 people in the U.S. Either way, we top the list without any competition. (And I wish I knew how many hunters there were per 100 people!)
In comparison, in Japan, there is less than 1 gun for every 100 people, in Russia less than 9 guns per 100, in Germany, less than 30 guns per people. In other words, you don’t have to have an armed population to be free or because you are wealthy.
And, yet, here in the U.S., if we are politically astute, we know we are limited to asking for “attainable” gun control. Because the gun lobby is so strong. Because Americans like their guns so much. Because of the 2nd amendment. Because if we don’t have guns in our homes the government might tyrannize us…
We know better than asking for curbs on the right to bear arms. We cannot expect significant legislation to lower our number or even put some sane limitations on the purchase and possession and storage and use of firearms.
But almost every day or night, one of our neighbors here in Philadelphia is shot to death. Just a paragraph in the paper or a minute on the news. No big deal. “You know those neighborhoods.” “The victims, well, they probably shot someone too.” (When you look at the crime statistics, it’s not just gun carriers taking each other out! And even if it were, every gun user is also someone’s son or father or friend or neighbor.) “Ther are extenuating circumstances.” “That’s how it is in a big city.”
Sometimes the mainline church has a problem differentiating itself from middle class America. Some would say we are too assimilated and like the world around us. Others claim we’ve so successfully shared many of our values that the world has adopted much of the church’s teaching.
But on this one folks, maybe it’s time to for the church to be different. To take a stand. To state unequivocally that the ways of our world are not what God wants or wills.
Let’s listen to another story line for a minute, church. Another understanding of reality. It’s not what the press is reporting. Or what political realities proscribe as possible.
It’s a vision that we and our world need to hear again and remember. It’s about what’s possible and how we are to live together, and a world where there is so much less hurt and loss. And when you put it together, it comes down a lot more non-violently than we are living:
Let’s begin with Habakkuk, who says (chapter 2:1-4):
“I will keep watch to see what God will say to me, and what God will answer concerning my pain.
Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.”.
What vision is God promising? Isaiah offers us a sobering word (chapter 59:1-6):
“See the Lord’s hand is not too short to save, nor the Lord’s ear too dull to hear.
Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden God’s face from you so that he does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness…
…Deeds of violence are in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; …desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is not justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace.”
And still the Psalmist offers the promise of God’s presence nontheless (Ps 46):
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; God utters God’s voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. …God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; breaks the bow; shatters the spear; burns the shields with fire.
Or from the very night that Jesus was betrayed (Matthew 26:51-52):
And behold one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest, and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Which reminds me to say to this congregation — as I have said to my earlier congregations — so that I’m on public record, so that someone might remember and even testify if necessary… If I were ever to be the victim of a homicide, as a Christian, it is my wish that my killer not be sentenced to capital punishment.
And, finally, let us hear again Isaiah that Laura read from the Hebrew Scriptures:
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall flow to it and many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk I his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not rise up against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
But the politicians aren’t listening to or worried about what the church is saying.
And people aren’t reading the Bible (much less coming to worship or feeling faith has anything relevant to add to our lives)?
That’s why some people here at Old First want to hang out a sign for the world to see.
It started in a conversation that Marta organized the Sunday before Christmas.
People gathered to discuss responses to Sandy Hook.
Some pointed out that this may well be a time when there’s a political opportunity,
where we might join with others who are working to change the laws,
decrease the availability of guns.
But then Julie, if I got it right (I wasn’t at this conversation), suggested, we sort of have a prime corner. Maybe we could do something, so it’s not so easy to overlook the deaths that are a result of gun violence.
Janice and Karen heard that, and started thinking and discussing. Even making prototypes. And praying.
They’re suggesting we might from the trees in the front courtyard hang a dove for everyone who is killed in Philadelphia this year by gun violence. With a tag attached with that person’s name.
Those who died as innocent victims. And those who died committing a violent crime. No exceptions. Everyone.
Because every person is sacred in God’s sight. Because as a church, can’t we make a stand and say that so many guns on our streets don’t make for peace? That every death is too many. No further commentary, just signage telling people about our memorial, making clear what the doves represent.
You can see some examples of the doves here in the Sanctuary today. You might not even have noticed them. 3 doves hanging from the balcony up by the worship circle. They only represent 3 of the 9 who have already been murdered this year. Imagine by the end of the year, there’s be over 300.
It’s a humble act. On one corner in a big city that doesn’t always pay that much attention to the church.
But the creche’ gets noticed on that same corner. Not by everyone. But by more people than you’d expect. Even the news outlets show up for the creche’.
Maybe if we just start hanging the doves… Nine or more by the time we get the first set in the oak tree right out front. And, sadly, as more and more as people are gunned down.
Maybe it’s the least we can do. To help our neighbors here in Philadelphia take notice of so many deaths. Make people begin to face the loss that is daily part of our city, taking it’s precious sons and daughters.
People will have questions and concerns. If you do, please see Janice or Karen. Marta’s not here this morning, but I bet Julie would talk to you too. You can talk to me too.
But if we don’t hear any major concerns, we’ll figure out how to invite you and people beyond our faith community to a time when we begin hanging the doves and remembering the victims of gun violence.
Is it enough when tonight most likely more human flesh will be torn by bullets and another human life will end unnecessarily?
I was moved my Roland Martin’s urging a parent of one of the Sandy Hook victims mother’s to describe what her son’s body looked like after he’d been gunned down in his first grade class room, much as Emmett Till’s mother insisted on a public funeral and an open casket after her 14-year old son had been murdered.
No, some doves fashioned from up-cycled milk cartons in the trees of our courtyard aren’t enough, not by themselves. But at least we’ll have made a start, announcing the church can’t overlook so many needless deaths. Maybe even a start stopping the violence…
You’ll hear the rest of the benediction as service ends
— or better as we prepare to go out into the world to serve —
but the benediction starts out:
“As the Savior so taught,
go now and overcome…”