Year C Proper 5: A Sermon for #WearOrange Sunday

A boy died in Zarephath, and his mother and Elijah cried out to God in anger at the injustice, in bitterness at the waste of life, saved by a miracle and spent so soon. Another mother’s son died in Nain, and Jesus was moved to radical, rebellious intervening action by his compassion for her grief and heavy loss.

Once, when I was interning as a hospital chaplain, a young man came into the Emergency Room and died, and his church wanted to perform a resurrection of him. In anger and hope and frustration they sang and prayed; for the sake of the other patients and staff, they were invited to move to the chapel. They borrowed holy oils and water. They tried so hard to raise that mother’s son, their faith that they could persuade God to give back his life endured longer than most could bear.

The call to #WearOrange to commemorate the lives lost to gun violence, and to pray for a solution to that plague on our community – it is born out of our distress at injustice and wasted life; out of compassion for those suffering injury and grief; out of that burning desire for radical intervening action to reverse death and restore our common life. It is not a political movement, and definitely not a partisan one. We all want to live free from injustice, and fear, and the premature entrance of death on the scene.

After Sandy Hook, and the murder of small children in their school, we came together in this place to pray. We cried out in anger and bitterness at the injustice of it all, at the lives, little miracles, spent too soon. We were moved with compassion, and we thought that we would do anything to prevent a tragedy like that from ever happening again.

This is uncomfortable ground, I know. But if we follow Jesus, we need to go there.

On the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, NBC published research about the deaths of children by gun violence since December 14, 2012.  They found that a child under the age of 12 had been killed by a gun almost every other day since then. Seventy-five % of those children were killed with guns belonging to family members or acquaintances. In other words, we are intimately acquainted with the means of their deaths.

Elijah rages at the injustice and the waste of life, and Jesus is moved to radical, rebellious action by his compassion for their heavy and immeasurable loss.

What will we do?

It’s not only about the children, of course. But it was after the murder of a five-month-old baby, Aavielle, shot as she sat in her car seat in Cleveland last year that some of you asked me directly, “What can we do?”

What can we do?

I’ve been exploring that question in the meantime. Last week, I sat down with some folks from Greater Cleveland Congregations who are working with local municipalities on an initiative around smart gun technology – the kind of safety features which make it less easy for unauthorized users to access and abuse guns. In two weeks’ time, I’ll be in Columbus with colleagues to hear about a proposal for extended background checks before guns are purchased, designed to make gun ownership safer for all concerned. And we are all concerned, aren’t we? And there’s always education, a traditional vocation of the church: providing parents and caregivers information on safe gun storage if you find you must keep one in your home.

I invite you to notice that each of these initiatives is designed not to take away anyone’s guns, but rather to reduce the misuse, abuse, the wasteful and wanton violence wrought by gun violence in our communities. I will note, though, that the NBC research found that legislation to restrict the ownership of guns by partners cited in domestic violence cases likely saves the lives of children who are otherwise caught in the crossfire when their mothers are attacked by their abusers.

I don’t want to smother the gospel with statistics, like the estimated 32,000+ deaths [<-note: this from a conservative, gun-friendly source] from gun violence, either by suicide, homicide, or accidental discharge that happen each year in this country, most of which never make the evening news; or the seven young people under the age of 20 who die daily from gun violence.

I don’t want to smother the gospel with statistics, as tempting as it is to go on.

But the gospel tells us that Jesus is moved to radical and rebellious action by his compassion for the bereaved, for those left to pick up the pieces of lives shattered by death. There is little more counter-cultural than interrupting a funeral, reaching in and reversing death.

How will we follow that?

If you think that we are helpless in the face of the overwhelming toll that death doles out, let me tell you something that you did, one Sunday, a few years ago, without even knowing it.

[Trigger warning: this story is not easy to hear, especially if you have been touched by suicide or thoughts of self-harm.]

We had a visitor. Most of you didn’t notice the quiet person who slipped in just as the service began. After the service, this person made an appointment to come back and talk with me during the week. They told me that they had intended to come and tell me all of the reasons they didn’t like church. But instead, they told me another story.

On that Sunday morning, this person had woken up with the conviction that this would be the day that they would not survive; that they did not want to survive. They got in the shower and considered their options. To their surprise, the thought came to them, as though from without, that they should try going to church first. So they came, and they sat among you. They watched you sing, and pray, and share the Body of Christ. You offered them the Peace of Christ, the peace that passes our understanding, and they thought that they understood why the voice in the shower had sent them here. They left feeling … better. Not good, but better. And they came back.

“If I had had a gun at home that morning,” the person told me, “I would not have come to church.”

I am glad that they found you that morning, instead of a firearm. I wish I knew where they were today.

We come together here, week by week, and on the first Sunday of every month we pray for healing, and we hope for miracles. We know Elijah’s anger, and his bitterness at the inexplicable sufferings of life. We know the helplessness of one another’s grief. But we, too, know the healing touch of Jesus, at least a little, at least enough to bring us back, week by week, for more; waiting on and expecting his radical and rebellious action in our lives, his resurrection of our bodies and our spirits.

We may not have the power to raise the dead, but that does not mean that we give in to grief. We have so much to offer: we have our prayers and encouragement; repentance for the healing of guilt and blame. We have our hope in the resurrection, and the peace which passes understanding. And when we choose, we have radical, rebellious, intervening action, following Jesus as he stops the procession of funerals passing by, and reaches out to return a son to his mother, washing out death by the power of the life which he pours into the world.

The priest whose off-the-cuff comment started our orange stole movement also preached on grief and gun violence today: find the Revd C. Eric Funston’s sermon here.

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