Sermon preached on the First Sunday in LentSt. Aidan’s February 18, 2018
I turned a corner on Saturday, I crossed a line. And somehow, I know there is no going back. What I did on Saturday was more painful than I had expected, but I know I would do it again. I can’t tell you about Saturday without without beginning the story in an earlier time that will never return.
When I was a child my family drove to the Missouri Ozarks a couple times each year to visit my father’s parents. Some summers I would be left on my own with the grandparents, which for me meant time with the grandfather I loved. Upon arriving at their little house, I would make my way to the closet in the living room and reach into the dark corner until my hand gripped the cool barrel of my rifle. Every day at their house included time spent plinking cans off a saw horse with that rifle, a tradition that began when I was five. I remember one summer when I was about ten and I accompanied my grandfather to an auction out in the country. Someone had died and all the items from life on a little farm were on display on tables in the yard, tools, kitchen ware, furniture, and one item that caught my eye and stood out for me as the only thing worth having on offer that day— a Sport King semi-automatic long barreled 22 pistol, complete with a leather holster. It was a marvel. I didn’t say anything to grandpa but he must have felt the same way because it was the only thing he bought that day. I think it cost him ten bucks.
I didn’t think much more about that pistol until some 30 years later when my father died and I found the pistol among his belongings. I have kept it all these years as a token of the love I had for my grandfather and the times we spent together, like that day at the auction. The gun has been kept in the dresser in my bedroom all this time. I have wondered about that gun and whether it was a good idea to have it around the house here in the city where my own curious grandkids visit, but I have kept it anyway. Until Saturday that is.
I was eating breakfast last Wednesday with some clergy friends and the talk came around to guns and their place in our world. A good friend in his eighties, a former Marine who grew up along the Potomac and who was given a 22 by his father when he was ten, said that he had finally taken all his guns to the local police station and asked them to destroy them. He said he didn’t want them any more and he didn’t want them out in the world. Later that day when I heard the news from Parkland, I resolved to do what I knew it was time to do. It just seemed right. I drove that pistol to the station, let the officer take it, and drove away sadder than I had anticipated, and changed in ways I am still coming to understand.
That was Saturday. Sunday was the first Sunday in Lent and I was preaching. The gospel for the day was about Jesus being baptized and then tempted in the wilderness. I had been listening to the news about the 17 kids in Parkland and I was embarrassed, not just for my church, but for Christians everywhere and for Christianity in general. I was embarrassed because voices were calling for a moment of silence, and prayers in response to the shootings……again. Silence and prayers. What about outrage and action?
So I warned my congregation that I was planning to talk about a place that was aching a bit in my heart and about politics. I preached on Sunday about the sadness of letting go of that old gun and of the need for Christians to get serious about the work of associating the word “Christian” with the demand for sane, sensible gun laws. I told my people I could not explain why that so-called Christian school in Lynchburg had encouraged its students to carry guns, but that theirs was not just another valid position among many. It is wrong. Simply wrong. I talked about becoming a priest after seeing white collars around the necks of marchers in Selma, Montgomery, and Memphis, but that it was not until later in my life that I had realized that white Christians mostly came late to that fight for another right cause. My own church had been slow to come around. This fight, the fight for common sense laws to limit the kinds and numbers of guns was the same kind of fight. History will look back some day and ask of the Church. What was going on? Where were you? What were you thinking?
We worry about being political, and we worry about whom we might offend, and we soften our tone and seek conciliatory words with those who see this issue from another angle. And we end up doing nothing. Again.
Mark’s story for the first Sunday in Lent speaks of Jesus being commissioned for the work of shaking things up and changing the world. Then it speaks of him being tempted… to what? At that point in the story the temptation can only have been to turn aside from the work to which he had been called. Those who are called to disturb the peace and bring in a new way are always tempted to do nothing, to play it safe, to hope the new future won’t be as costly as we know it must be.
The call of God throughout scripture is…..has always been, to leave the old, familiar, comfortable place (even when the comfortable place really isn’t) and to journey to the new place that God will show us. That is the call for Abraham, Moses, Israel, Peter, James, John, Mary… Like so many preachers, I don’t often tell my congregation that being a Christian means working to change the world, and that there will always be a cost in that work. I am reminded this week by yet another senseless shooting that there is much work to do, and so I call you today to the work of Christians everywhere. The hard work of changing the world.
I know that old gun I gave up won’t change anything in terms of how many guns are out there, but it is changing my understanding of what the fight is about. I loved my grandfather and I loved that gun. But I would not give that gun to my grandson. The world has changed. The setting and culture in which I embraced that gun is gone. It has been replaced by a culture in which guns have become symbols of anger, fear, and pride spinning out of control, a culture in which the very presence of guns everywhere, always at our fingertips, challenges too many of us to think of new and more terrible ways to use them. It is time to move to a new land, a new way, a new era in the life of humanity. The gospel has never called its people to anything less than that. Changing the world is our calling.
I said all that on Sunday and I was surprised when people came up to me afterward and said, “that sermon had nothing to do with politics.” They seemed to think it had a lot to do with Christianity.
We did have a moment of silence and a prayer for the victims of this latest tragic mess, and then a prayer for creative engagement with the problem, and hearts disturbed and stirred to go out and work to bring about the changes called for in our time.