Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Phil. 3:4b-14; Matt. 21:33-46
This time last week, we did not know the name of Stephen Paddock. Sunday night, Paddock fired an automatic weapon into a crowd of 22,000 people who were enjoying a country music concert in Las Vegas, killing 59 and injuring 527 before turning the gun on himself. It is the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States leaving another emotional scar on the American psyche. And people ask, “When and how will the violence stop?”
There are no easy answers. Messages from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department last week alerted the public to shootings in nearby Burton and St. Helena Island. The problem is worse in the cities of Charleston and Savannah. It might surprise some of you to learn that I have a handgun tucked away at home. It was given to me by a former Moderator of the Diaconate in a previous congregation I served as pastor. The parishioner, church officer and friend owned a liquor store and used the weapon to shoot a stranger trying to rob the cash register. He no longer wanted the gun and decided to give it to me. And I sometimes wonder, “What does a pastor do with a handgun?”
I have never been able to answer that question with any certainty. The gun was cleaned last year and I have plenty of ammunition. For nearly 30 years I have had the gun in my possession but never fired it. As a Navy Corpsman assigned to Marine Units in the field, I was trained to carry and shoot a .45 caliber and the M-16, but thankfully never had to direct fire at another human being. As a Navy Chaplain I served on the Aegis Cruiser that launched a number of cruise missiles that started Desert Storm. On that January night in 1991, I knew what was happening on the other end when those missiles hit their target.
As I grow older, I sometimes reminisce about an earlier time that was innocent and simple. Stores and shops closed on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and nothing opened on a Sunday. Nothing. I remember children running through yards and streets in a 6 block radius, rummaging through refrigerators when parents weren’t home and the front door was left unlocked. It was an acceptable practice to make yourself at home as long as you cleaned the table and threw your trash away. I remember occasional disciplinary action taken by adults who were not my parents and time-outs on the front door steps because of unruly behavior. Their authority was never questioned. And then there were the scraps and fist-a-cuffs in the side yards that never lasted more than a few minutes and always ended with a sign of friendship and reconciliation. I do not remember friends holding grudges. Neither do I remember feelings of hate or animosity, uncontrolled anger or strong feelings of vengeance when there was a misunderstanding. Most people went to church on Sunday and families, friends, and neighbors had a way of working through most of their problems. Rarely did I hear any cursing or strong language much less the “F” word, but I remember my mother washing my mouth out with soap on the days I was too sassy. I remember hunting rifles and fishing rods in the back of pickup trucks in the high school parking lot, and the seat of my pants getting warmed by a hard, wooden paddle on the average of once a week until I entered my sophomore year of high school. Kay’s cousin, Pete Kelly, a high school teacher and weight lifter, was the last adult to put wood on me. When Pete Kelly took hold of me that day, I made the decision that maybe I had had enough.
More than ever before, I read in numerous places where people share the observation that life is hard. And it is for many reasons. The corporate office mandates a 29 hour work week eliminating medical benefits and other perks for part-time employees. A serious illness can spell financial disaster. And then, there is the crazy, frantic pace of life as we manage work and family, car pools and tight schedules, athletic contests and dance lessons, committee meetings and social events. We become more frazzled every day. Where is the peace and happiness?
Enough. In Tuesday’s staff meeting we visited around the circle and talked in a very relaxed atmosphere about the tragedy of Las Vegas and the various things happening around us causing so many people anxiety and worry. The question was asked, “What does the church have to say to people at a time like this filled with so much violence and tragedy, mistrust and anger, harsh rhetoric and mean-spirited politics?
For the last five days I have pondered that question and believe we have the answer in front of us by way of the morning lessons. Want to know how to live a good life? When we consider the first part of chapter 20 in the book of Exodus and Jesus’ parable about wicked tenants in the gospel of Matthew, we gain a better understanding about the necessity of loving God and loving one’s neighbor, and treating people with dignity and respect, mercy and justice. This way of life begins every morning in a very personal way when we decide to pick up our cross of daily responsibilities and commitments in the effort to follow Jesus Christ.
In the aftermath of Las Vegas and other tragedies, fear is not the last word. Following the wisdom of the apostle Paul, we are called to rejoice in the Lord – always – which means that we never play down problems of the world, but live in the framework of a hope that is grounded in Jesus Christ, a hope that transcends all difficult circumstances of life. Christians believe in a “with-us God.” We do not panic in tough times. We pray and share our needs with the Lord. The result of this daily and holy conversation is a peace that defies all human understanding. In Christ, the peace of God is always with us. (Phil. 4:4 ff.)
In the last year, the hymn we sometimes sing following the lighting of the Peace Candle has captured my heart. Drawn from the example of Celtic prayer used by St. Patrick the church lifts her voice in faith and hope and sings in the midst of a bruised and battered world: “God, be the love to search and keep me; God, be the prayer to move my voice; God, be the strength to now uphold me: O Christ, surround me; O Christ, surround me.”
In answer to the question what the church might say to us about the turbulent times in which we live, I believe the church answers this question the same way in which the church has spoken in other times of crisis and tragedy: We get up in the morning, devoted to Christ and to living as a Christian involved, engaged, and active in and with the world. We resist and renounce evil knowing that there is no going back to the way things used to be, but there is a way of moving forward into a life that Christ bids us to live and bear witness to.
Following the precedent of Israel by way of the Exodus and the apostolic witness of the early church adhering to the good news of Jesus Christ: Let us not be afraid. We press on doing what the church has always done, “We live and act, suffer and die, in happiness and unhappiness, in life and death, sustained by the presence, the love and the grace of God in Jesus Christ, helpful to the person and people we know as neighbor, the people who need us now.” The Lord takes care of the rest. Amen. (Adapted from Hans Kung, On Being A Christian, page 602)