A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: the Sunday after the Ascension, and the Sunday after the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas
“Do not leave us comfortless,” we pray in the Collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, in the midst of those ten days between the Ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. If three days between sealing the tomb and seeing the stone rolled away seemed an eternity, ten days of new waiting, new wondering what was to come, what they were to do, must have felt like a lifetime to those apostles.
In ten days in May, we saw grandmothers and lovers gunned down in Buffalo, a church attacked in California, and now, and now those children and their teachers. We are shocked to the core by the spectacle of another elementary school shooting, two days before summer break, with its promises of ice cream and lemonade. And we pray, “Do not leave us comfortless.”
And that’s appropriate. We each have our own grief and trauma to process, and God cares about it, about us all. Even so, after Buffalo and Uvalde, not to mention Ukraine and Yemen, I can’t help feeling a little selfish, a little greedy when there is so little comfort to go around. When I hear, “Do not leave us comfortless,” I think of his grandmother. I think of those four children in Uvalde orphaned first by the murder of their mother as she tried to protect other people’s children in her classroom, those children whose father’s heart was literally and physically broken by her loss. I wonder, would it not be better to pray, “Do not leave them comfortless”?
On this Memorial Day weekend we honour those who gave their lives for a vision of freedom, of justice, of some kind of peace we imagine. Yet war continues to kill civilians in Ukraine, in Yemen, and elsewhere, and weapons of war continually and repeatedly terrorize our children, their families, our communities.
In the vision of Revelation, John sees those who are welcomed into the city of God, who have the right to eat of the Tree of Life, which produces twelve kinds of fruit for each month, and its leaves are healing for the nations (Rev 22:2). And “nothing accursed will be found there any more,” writes John (Rev 22:3). There is no murder, no harm, no foul thing within the city (Rev 22:15), and no more weeping (Rev 21:4). Amen, he declares, come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20) And we echo his prayer: Do not leave us comfortless, but give us the vision of God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done here and now.
“Do not leave us comfortless.” What if our prayer was not for ourselves, for our own comfort, but that we might not be without comfort to offer to those who are beyond consolation?
We have all felt that helplessness, that hopelessness in the face of tragedy and seemingly overwhelming violence. But we are not without help, and we are not without hope. God does not leave us comfortless.
In his letter this week, in the aftermath of far too imaginable violence against innocent children and their helpers, our Bishop rightly wrote that we cannot say this is not who we are, when it keeps happening. When we keep letting it happen.
But if this is who we are, then we have the power to change that, to repent, to repent in dust and ashes and on bended knee; to become something new, washed and wrung out [and God will not hang us out to dry].
Yesterday, five new deacons were ordained into the church, and at their ordination a lay member of our diocese preached. Ruth Benedict Mercer spoke of hope, and I wish that I could just deliver her here to you, because her message was so powerful. You can find it online. At one point, she quoted Cornel West, who has called himself a “prisoner of hope“ . I chased down that quote and found that he describes the difference between optimism and hope in a Masterclass on “Hope and Optimism, Love and Loss”:
Optimism, he says, is a spectator sport, watching to see whether the evidence shows that things might get better. But hope, if hope sees that things are not getting better (and that is how it looks to many of us just now), then hope decides that we need to create some new evidence, that we have to do something different if things are going to get better.
To quote West, “hope is in the mess, in the muck, in the mire, in the funk. And it helps create new evidence. Because when you are in the funk, in the mire, in the mess, your actions, your attitude, your inspiration, your impact on other can create new evidence.”
And, he says, “It’s no accident then that hope and despair go hand in hand. Hope is a wrestling with the despair. Over and over again, but never allowing despair to have the last word to dampen your fire to sustain your hope in your quest for truth, goodness, beauty, and maybe the Holy.”
We are not comfortless. In the midst of despair, we have the hope that comes from taking up the Cross, that instrument of death, and bearing it away, creating the conditions for new and resurrected life. We are not comfortless, but comfort is not saying it’ll be ok when nothing is ok, peace when there is no peace. Comfort, like hope, has to be an agent of change if it is to have any meaning.
In the coming weeks you know that we have some work to do. We are running a gun buyback here in two weeks’ time. We will beat some guns into garden tools, swords into ploughshares. We are planning some diocesan-wide and province-wide sessions to encourage and equip one another to do the work of disassembling our economy of weaponry and violence. After this service, you may gather in the Chapel to pray a Litany in the Wake of a Mass Shooting, you can sign condolence cards to some of the communities most recently affected by atrocity; you can also follow the urging of the Episcopal Public Policy Network to put pressure on our elected officials to do the will of the overwhelming majority of the American people and put some controls around our gun trafficking, which has led to so much death, devastation, and despair. We, the body of Christ, can pray and hope and demand that no more bodies be broken by AR15s acquired by teenagers. And, we are partnering with our neighbours to address anti-racism, using the Sacred Ground curriculum. Hope creates new conditions, and does not simply sit back and hope for the best.
I invite you into that work in whatever way works best for you. Because if we are to pray, “Do not leave us comfortless,” we cannot turn our backs on those who are inconsolable.
God does comfort us, feeds us with the fruit of the Tree of Life, Christ’s body and blood broken on the Cross and poured out for us. May we become fruitful in feeding others with comfort, hope, healing for the nations. May the Holy Spirit come not only to comfort us, but to inspire and incite us, to provoke us to visions of how this could be otherwise, and to work to paint them into reality. Do not leave us comfortless, but come, Holy Spirit.
Featured image: Rachel weeping for her children, via wikimedia commons