Everything comes with a side of guns

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were in the upstairs balcony of a large sporting goods store. Somewhere downstairs, I heard a door alarm beeping, and a woman’s voice urging, “Everyone get out!” She did not say, “Gun.” She didn’t need to. Everyone who heard her knew what she was telling us. (Not everyone heard her. That’s a whole other story.)

This time, it was a false alarm on a balmy Friday evening in a busy shopping district. But the fact that she didn’t need to say the word for everyone to recognize that this could be it, this could be us speaks encyclopedias about the state we are in.

All are impressed with the imminence of death.

(Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker, Volume XII, Number 9, 1 November 1945, p.2)

It was Thursday. I was finishing up the funeral booklets, and emailing hectically back and forth with the other organizers of the evening Vigil and Call to Action against gun violence. There had been too much death in the past week, natural and unnatural. I was shaking like a caffeine addict on the adrenaline of survival, pushing through the business of gratitude for the life that goes on.

A petitioner came to the door. His genial disposition, artfully easy, introduced him as a salesman. He worked with a construction company, specializing in restoration after an unanticipated building disaster: flood, fire, storm. They would make videos of water shut-offs, gas valves, weak spots. No cost to us upfront, just a promise that we would call them first in the unfortunate and unhoped for event.

Still flipping through his folder, he pointed to the tab in the middle and asked, “Oh, and Active Shooter Drills. Have you done those yet?”

I did not have the time to wonder deeply why a construction company, expert in damp recovery and replastering, thought that an active shooter drill would be right up their alley (nor why we would call them first in the unfortunate event). I did not have the wherewithal in that Thursday moment to explain my theological aversion to drilling fear into our worship, or the stubborn resistance to the inevitably of guns everywhere that stems from the sanctuary of my foolish faith.

I wondered if the man had seen the signs outside, advertising the evening Vigil. I wondered whether that would make him more or less inclined to offer a side of gun violence with his list of anticipated disasters. I wondered what he read in my face. He switched gears so quickly that even he, smooth as oil, almost snagged.

All are impressed with the imminence of death, not only for themselves but their dear ones.

(Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker, Volume XII, Number 9, 1 November 1945, p.2)

In the meantime, I was reminded (via Twitter, redeeming itself) that Dorothy Day declined to participate in the nuclear air raid drills that followed the detonation of the American atom bomb, and the Cold War that followed hot on its heels.

In an Introduction to Day’s Selected Writings, Robert Ellsberg wrote,

Dorothy considered this situation in the light of the Gospel. In the face of weapons of indiscriminate destruction, the teaching of indiscriminate love had, she believed, become a practical necessity, an imperative. To live under the “protection” of such weapons without resisting, without raising an outcry, was, in her view, to participate in the ultimate blasphemy.

Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, Edited with an Introduction by Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books, 2005), xxxv

Try reading the introduction to the column Day wrote three months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and substitute for the atom bomb the AK-47, the AR-15, the assault rifle, the semi-automatic, and tell me it doesn’t ring true. She wrote:

Wherever we go there is talk of the atom bomb. All are impressed with the imminence of death, not only for themselves but their dear ones; for all about them.

And she added,

Down in Washington … The great ones of the earth are conferring. …What to do?

We can only suggest one thing – destroy the two billion dollars’ worth of equipment that was built up to make the atomic bomb; destroy all the formulas; put on sack cloth and ashes, weep and repent.

(Catholic Worker, Volume XII, Number 9, 1 November 1945, p.2)

 

Posted in current events, Gun control, gun safety, story | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Love will tear us apart

“Love, love will tear us apart again.”

We expect to hear it from Joy Division, but not from Jesus.

Yet, “I come not to bring peace but division,” Jesus told his disciples (Luke 12:51). He is drawing a line in the sand.

*

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, to Golgotha and the Cross. He knows that trouble will find him there, whether he goes looking for it or not. He can read the signs on the wind, in the air. He is giving his followers fair warning that what is to follow will be painful. It will cost some of them everything. Is he looking at Judas when he comes to that line?

This is really not what we want to hear from our Jesus. We have seen him in the manger, meek and mild, the Christ-child pouring light from his cradle into the world, so that the stars themselves come to pay homage. We have seen him wise in the temple, weary in the desert, prayerful on the mountaintop. We have seen him heal the multitudes and feed the hordes with manna from heaven. In all of this, we never suspected that he would ask us to risk anything in return, least of all an argument, least of all division.

But Jesus is simply reading the signs. He knows that the Cross will split open the earth and divide the depths of Hades. He knows that his disciples will make hard choices, and that not everyone they love will understand, or agree, or go along with them.

Jesus is not afraid to draw the line. Elsewhere, he says clearly, “Those who are not with me are against me, and one who does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23). Another time he admonishes his would-be followers to make sure that they are all in before they get out of their depth: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Once, he literally drew lines in the sand, writing in the dust with his finger while the crowd silently dropped their stones and drifted away, after he challenged them on their administration of the death penalty against a woman allegedly caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).

*

We have heard that we are living in the most divided times in America, which seems unlikely given the history of colonization, not to mention the Civil War; nevertheless, we are advised to be very careful not to give further offence to anyone already on edge, not to say or do anything that would increase our divisions; to make nice, and not to draw lines between right and left, nor even between right and wrong. “There are good people on both sides,” we are told.

But our souls rebel. We cannot accept that the cost of loving our weird uncle with his racist views and snide asides is to betray the love that Jesus has for children in cages and people with brown skin like his. Will we stay silent for the sake of an unquiet peace, or risk dividing the family for the sake of the gospel? If it will offend my brother to tell him to leave his guns at home, unloaded and locked in a safe, and that he, but not his weapons, are welcome in my house, should I draw that line, even though it may cause offence?

I am not going to pretend for a moment that family quarrels or rifts are easy. The people closest to us leave the biggest scars when they tear away from our side. And of course not every battle has to be fought at once, and sometimes talking across difference can build bridges to peace. But sometimes we leave parts of the gospel outside for the sake of a quiet life. And is that where the gospel belongs?

*

The last time my parents came to visit us in England before we moved to Ohio, my mother and I got into a fight. The news of the day called into question the dignity of a gay man nominated to become a bishop, and denigrated into the withdrawal of his name by those with no respect for his ordination, nor for his person. When my mother repeated some of their talking points, at my table and in front of my children, I objected. It escalated into tears and locked doors. I was clumsy. It was painful.

The next day, when the air was calmer, my mother asked, “Why would you ruin our last visit before you leave us with an argument?” She had a painful and poignant point. But she forgave me, and later, the day would come when she, too, would refuse to sacrifice the dignity and respect she had for a boy she loved who grew up a gay man.

*

Sharon Risher’s family was torn apart in the worst way when her mother, Ethel Lance, was murdered at bible study in Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston. It is easy to say that the violence, vitriol, and White supremacy that drove Dylann Roof to such an extremist atrocity have no place in Jesus’ preaching. But the division of Risher’s family did not end there.

In her book with Sherri Wood Emmons, For Such a Time As This, the Rev. Risher describes the moment when her younger sister, Nadine, addressed Roof in court, and forgave him.

True to her reputation, she said something totally unexpected, just what would be expected from her. “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her every again – but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

I started screaming again. Nadine’s words went through me hard, like an electric shock. I wasn’t ready to forgive. Did she think she was speaking for the entire family? How dare she?!

Earlier in his ministry, when his mother and siblings came to find him, horrified at the tales they had heard of his wild works and outspoken preaching (Mark 3:21), and they could not reach him, Jesus refused to come out to them where they were, saying “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

Later, at the Cross, his mother was still with him, and he handed her into the care of his friend, drawing the circle wider, keeping the love unbroken.

Risher has written a whole book about her journey to forgiveness of her mother’s murderer, including her shock at the early and impetuous statement of her younger sister. She concludes,

I disagreed with Nadine. I had not forgiven Dylann Roof, but I respected my sister’s position. She had a right to her own emotions and grieving process …

I allowed myself the time it took. I don’t feel like I’m any worse because I didn’t forgive this man instantly. I haven’t found a scripture that lays out how much time it takes, or how much time God allows us to forgive. I knew I would get there someday – because, as a Christian, I have no other choice.

*

Jesus follows the prophets in being unafraid to draw lines between right and wrong, faith and weakness, fear and uncompromising love. Such uncompromising love takes courage and kindness. It takes humility. It takes practice. It takes time. It isn’t easy. I’m not great at it; my children are better and braver and set an example for me.

It is easier to heal divisions and to risk drawing lines in the sand if we have already built our lives on love. Relationships can withstand disagreement if they are already practiced in grace and mercy. Even fire can clean the way for something new to grow.

The divisions that Jesus describes among his disciples, at their best, are not permanent, but they are growing pains, signs of the emergence of the kingdom of God among us. Discipleship stretches our souls to love God more deeply, to forgive more recklessly, and to love more broadly the children of God. It shakes up old boundaries and breaks down cherished biases. Discipleship should change us, stretch us, grow us, and there will always be friction as we rub up against the tolerance limits of the structures that have formed us so far.

These are the signs of the kingdom, Jesus tells us, so do not be afraid, little flock. God is willing and waiting to restore all things in God’s mercy, risking everything alongside you on the Cross, transforming its hard lines into new life through the Resurrection.

God’s love is unbroken.


Joy Division, Love Will Tear Us Apart, 1980

Rev. Sharon Risher with Sherri Wood Emmons, For a Time Such as This: Hope and Forgiveness after the Charleston Massacre (Chalice Press, 2019), pp. 6, 108-9

Posted in lectionary reflection, sermon | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chaos and prayer

Without words, prayer falls formless
and void; we must speak
light to scare chaotic thought
into patterns, comforting,
familiar as poppies
in the hedgerow –
the spirit sighs
deeply.

Without prayer, words usurp God,
creating worlds of their own imagination

But when words and prayer collide,
ever-expanding, infinite energy  –

still
the ash falls soft,
smudging the spirit so that
it peers through the blasted prayer
as though through a glass,
dimly.


First published at the Episcopal Cafe

Posted in poetry, prayer | Leave a comment

By faith

A word of encouragement for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost in Year C.


The author of the letter to the Hebrews was not, to our knowledge, a theoretical physicist; although they might have been.

To declare that “faith is the conviction of things not seen,” and that, “by faith we understand … that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” is to describe the very basis on which we live with our feet fixed to the ground by gravity, and our orbit informed by the intricate, if not infinite, dimensions of space.

What we understand, what we grasp and believe that we know about our place in the universe is based on our (or at least, our scientists’) observation of the world around us, how it works, and how unseen forces seem to affect our everyday lives. We know that things happen before we know why they happen. In other words, we live by faith. Gravity caused the apple to fall from the tree before Isaac Newton decided to do the mathematics in order to try to understand why. The concept of the Higgs boson came from observing its theoretical effects on creation long before the Large Hadron Collider was built to test the hypothesis.

We live by faith, and our faith is living, and evolving, and developing in understanding, and testing its theories and refining its findings. Faith does not walk blindfolded or blinkered. It is highly observant.

As you may or may not have heard, the letter to the Hebrews was probably not written by Paul, author of so many other letters, but by someone else early in the Christian tradition, in the second half of the first century of the Christian era. This was a time when a new generation was coming of age who had not known Jesus, in the flesh or by repute, while he was walking the earth. They inherited a faith from their fathers and mothers and godparents which had at first assumed that the Second Coming was imminent; that God’s kingdom would come in power and great glory within their lifetime; that God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven, within their sight.

As time and generations wore on, and we still had the work to do of repentance, of preparation, of waiting upon Christ’s coming, the theory had to be modified. Under the observation that empires still oppress, that cruelty still has currency, that the will of God continues to be subverted by a fallen humanity – those who prefer power to love, satisfaction to service, law and order to grace and mercy – the timeline for the Christian experiment had to be extended. As parents were buried, and children fell ill with no miracle to save them, our understanding of eternal life had to be deepened. It no longer meant that the first generation of Christians would never die, but that each of us would follow Jesus to the Cross, and through the tomb, to the day of Resurrection.

This adjustment, this evolution of faith was not new, the Hebrews’ guide assured them. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and his children died before they realized in their lives all that God had promised them. Moses, looking over the Promised Land from Mount Nebo, whence you can see the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan valley laid out all the way to the Dead Sea and beyond, whence you can see Mount Zion, knew that he would not return that way with his people. But he trusted God to bring them home.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging at this point, by the way, that each of these people were migrants, at times even refugees, wandering the earth at the direction and under the protection of God, who has always prescribed mercy for the exile, since the time of Eve, Adam, and even Cain.

Moses named his son Gershom, because, he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

By faith, they wandered the earth. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is the basis for our understanding that day will follow night, and that what goes up must come down, and that life will follow death, even as death stalks this life. Faith observes the empty tomb of Jesus, and posits resurrection, because “what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”

No one has seen the Higgs boson, but its effects have been observed, and our theory of how the world works invests confidence and faith in its existence. Gravity is not visible, but we trust not only that it exists, but that we have a reasonable understanding of how it works.

No one has seen the love and ever-giving life of God, but its effects have been observed, and our lives are built on the confidence and faith that God is with us. We have not had the pleasure nor the awe of encountering God face to face, but we believe that God is with us, and we have a reasonable understanding of how God reveals Godself to us.

We find the effects of God in creation itself – in the mystery and the puzzle and the intellectual exercise of unravelling space and time and the beauty, the sheer breathtaking-ness of a butterfly, and a cloudscape, and the hypnotic rhythm of the rise and fall of a child’s sleeping body at peace.

We find the effects of God in the love of strangers, who draw together in completely altruistic, self-sacrificing kindness, to rescue someone from danger, to wipe the tears of a mourner, to comfort the child of a stranger, to demand a better world to live in, something closer to the one God wills here as in heaven.

We find the effects of God at the bedside of one crossing the permeable but invisible veil between this life and another. We see how a man at the end of a long life is reassured by visitors from his past, how he recognizes them. We learn from observation that life is not ended by death, but transformed, and even then, into something we will recognize, and trust.

We remain, with the readers of the letter to the Hebrews, impatient for God’s will to be done, on earth as in heaven: for violence to be beaten into the earth, swords into ploughshares; for cruelty to be converted into kindness; for the valley of the shadow of death to be flooded with the light of everlasting life.

In the meantime, we walk by faith, not unthinking but informed by what we see around us: that God is with us. We find grace in the journey of Jesus, the incarnation of God’s Word made flesh, for us and for our salvation; love nailed to the Cross; the quiet victory of the empty tomb; the broken bread and wine poured out for all.

We live by faith, with thanksgiving. Amen.

Posted in lectionary reflection, sermon | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Vigil for the victims of gun violence

We were heart-stricken but honoured to host at Epiphany a Vigil for the most recent victims of mass murder and gun violence, in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, organized by God Before Guns. The Rector’s welcome follows the video of Noah Budin singing us into a circle at the close.

I invite you to pray with us.

Good evening. My name is Rosalind Hughes, and as the Rector of the Church of the Epiphany it is my privilege to welcome God Before Guns, our friends, our neighbours, clergy colleagues, and our Mayor to the Episcopal Church in Euclid.

You are welcome here.

You are welcome here whether you are grieving or angry, traumatized, energized or worn dry crying. You are welcome whether you come seeking God’s comfort or whether you just want, for God’s sake, to do something about the gun violence in this nation.

You are welcome here, regardless of age, gender, relationship status, religion, race, or history.

You are welcome here, whether you have ever owned a gun, or whether the very thought makes you shiver. To be clear: no guns are welcome in this sacred space. But you are.

You are welcome here, regardless of how you vote, whether you have given up, or have yet to vote; although you will hear a word this evening about using your power as We the People to do something about gun violence.

You are welcome whether you were born here, whether your ancestors were brought here by force, or came of their own free will. If your family tended this land before America was born, standing on the inheritance of the Erie people, we are grateful to you. If you only just got here, we welcome you.

You are welcome here whether you call on the name of Jesus, or whether you know God through some other name, or whether you are not sure if you know God at all, but God knows, you want to do something about all this gun violence.

You are welcome here whether you are on fire, or whether you feel burned out.

You are welcome in the name of the One who created us each in Their own image, in the name of the One who calls us back from the brink of the abyss time and again, in the name of the One who catches our breath so that we can contemplate the climb out the valley of the shadow of death, the one to whom we pray:

O God, whose Name is Love and whose Word is Welcome,
we ask your consolation on those who mourn this night
your inspiration for those who act on your command
to love your children, to care for your creation, to heal this nation;
may your will win out here as in heaven.
Deliver us from the evil of gun violence,
and from all evil ideas and ideologies that inspire it.
Let your Spirit of life and truth be our only firepower.
Let your Love be our only temptation.
Let your Presence be our protection and our provocation as we remember
your people murdered and maimed most recently in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton.
May they rest in peace, and may we rise up in your Name. Amen.

Posted in current events, Gun control | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

America, it is past time to repent

A sermon at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, after a week of White supremacy and gun violence culminating in two mass shootings in less than 24 hours. The readings include Hosea, Colossians, and the parable of the self-satisfied rich man.


God has always loved you.

This is the message that the prophet Hosea wants us to hear, even in the midst of mess, even in the turmoil of a life filled with strife; even in the aftermath of sin: God has always loved you.

“I taught Ephraim to walk,” God croons, “I lifted them into my arms. … I was their mother, their father, their nurse, who lift infants to their cheeks, and cradle them to feed them.”

But “the more I called them, the more they went from me.”

Hosea is writing to a people who have turned away from the covenant that their ancestors made with God: to love God first and best; to refrain from lying, stealing, covetousness, or greed, and from killing. The people have forgotten the commandment and their promise to put no gain ahead of the love of God.

In the latter part of the eighth century BCE, a succession of assassinations and coups d’etat left the northern kingdom of Israel in tatters and disarray. Eventually, there was no king left in Israel, and the kingdom was partitioned by its adversaries.

Hosea, watching all of this befall throughout his career as a prophet of the living God, recognized that while nothing, and no one, can end nor defeat the love of God, God’s forgiveness does not necessarily remove the consequences of our fallen, foolish, and sinful decisions to turn away from the covenant of righteousness established in perpetuity even in our prehistory.

Israel, Ephraim, and Samaria have sown the wind, the prophet says, and now they are reaping the whirlwind (Hosea 7:7a).

Hosea recounts how tenderly, as a nursing mother, God loves Israel. Hosea loves his country. And he is calling it to repentance.

You may have seen recently on social media the church sign that commanded, under the seriously ironic name of Friendship Baptist Church: America. Love it or leave it. Of course, the pastor was quoting President Trump, not the prophets, when he posted the sign.

Bishop A. Robert Hirschfeld of New Hampshire responded this week, in part by writing,

Some six centuries before the birth of Jesus, a prophet burst on the scene in Jerusalem. Jeremiah was disgusted with the state of his nation which he saw was threatened, not so much by outside empires poised to invade and conquer, but by the loss of its soul. …

The mistreatment of immigrants, refugees, and strangers, the neglect of orphans and widows, and pledging fidelity to material idols were rampant in Jeremiah’s day. He saw the injustice and brutality of his time as a betrayal of God. …

Jeremiah loved his country, though its betrayal of the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor caused a burning within him that would not allow him to be silent.

Jeremiah, prophesying a century or so later and a few miles south of Hosea followed in his prophetic footsteps. Both knew firsthand the love of God, God’s tenderness for God’s people; and both knew that the nation bears responsibility for its own acceptance or rejection of the way of God’s love.

The murders of two children and a young man last week at Gilroy, and the death of their teenaged killer, drew little notice in a country so attuned to gun violence by now that we are almost numb. The fact that White supremacist literature and statements were linked to the gunman surprised nobody, and elicited little comment. Yesterday, we saw the same sorry story played out again in El Paso, Texas, resulting in even greater loss of life, pain, and injury. And of course, overnight, it visited Dayton, Ohio.

The deadly combination of targeted hatred coupled with widespread individual armouries – an obscene proliferation of weapons of death tucked into our daily life – continues to wreak havoc among us. This is the product and the consequence of sin.

If we love our country, it is past time to call it to repentance.

You know that the clergy of Washington National Cathedral – an Episcopal Bishop and two Deans – called the question in an open letter, addressing the racist rhetoric coming from the highest office of the nation most recently. They wrote (again I am quoting in part):

Make no mistake about it, words matter. And, Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous.

These words are more than a “dog-whistle.” When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human “infestation” in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.

When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.

If we continue to allow the wind to be sown with prejudice, greed, idolatry, and weaponry we will continue to reap the whirlwind of violence, mass shootings, and civil despair.

Certainly, the prophets would agree that words matter. Certainly, we who follow the very Word of God, Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, must agree that words matter, and have power. Words make things happen, for better or for worse. In the beginning, God spoke the word, “Light,” and it sprang into being.

Paul agrees that words matter. “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the higher things,” he says. “Get rid of … anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.” Shun the hatred and selfishness, the idolatry that breaks in two the tablets of God’s covenant with God’s people, the commandments handed down through Moses and the prophets. Seek the life of Christ, who died to fulfill the Law and the prophets, rather than succumb to the temptations of the hour to arm himself with battalions even of angels; who put away violence, and who took up the little children in his arms.

God has always loved you, the prophets tell us. For God’s sake, love one another! Reject all calls to discrimination, to the disinheritance of your brothers and sisters and siblings. Restore justice for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the alien among you. Do not imagine that you can hoard blessings for yourself without showering your neighbour, the stranger with love, too. Isn’t that the message of Jesus’ parable? It’s a message straight from the prophets.

God has always loved you, the prophets and saints continue to tell us. God is not far from you, even in times of great trial. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Posted in current events, Gun control, sermon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gilroy, guns, and White anger

Red Letter Christians published a piece I wrote reflecting on the uncivil war simmering in the soul of America, one that breaks out all too often in acts of violence like last weekend’s tragedy in Gilroy, California.

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18, after Jeremiah 31:15)

When Jeremiah spoke of Rachel weeping, it was to offer comfort: a vision of peace and restoration after the invasion of a foreign force. By the time Matthew quoted him, the picture of harm was from within. It was the people’s own king and his interests that murdered the innocents in Bethlehem. A king, who perceived a threat to his power and influence in the wail of a swaddled infant of his own house, wreaked havoc and let loose his instruments of death. No wonder Rachel refused consolation.

There is a civil war raging in the soul of America, and its violence is not constrained to the Twitter feeds of trolls. From family separation at our borders to the devastation of families by gun violence, the anger against those defined as “others” stems from a similar source. Instead of shouting insurrection on street corners, some angry men spray it across crowds, spreading harm far beyond the death toll. 

Read the whole piece at Red Letter Christians.

Posted in current events, Gun control, gun safety, lectionary reflection | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments