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I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our liturgy and themes have centered on gardening. We’ve used the gardening metaphor as a way of talking about our growth in and with God. But what happens when the garden doesn’t grow? What happens when we fail to produce a crop, or even healthy plants, or when they are destroyed by pests or drought or storm, or any number of things that can wreck fragile creation?
I had my sermon already written by the end of the week. It was a good sermon about the economic powers that be and how important it is to be invested in the right things, including in the economy of the soul. But then El Paso. And I woke up this morning very early to finish this rewrite to the news of at least 9 dead in Dayton. And, of course there were two or three, maybe more, other mass shootings last week, but I didn’t change my sermon for them. And that makes me pause. I have to tell you that while I don’t always change my sermon in response to a mass shooting because, if I did, you would hear the same sermon every week, for we average more almost two mass shootings a week in the United States. But this morning I am afraid NOT to change my sermon because that might mean this is becoming normalized for us, like we’re not talking about that anymore out of resignation. I’m afraid that if I don’t say anything, if I don’treact, it helps to reinforce what I’m terrified is happening – that we have surrendered to this just being part of normal life. And it isn’t. It isn’t normal. It cannot be normal.
We’re not the only country with people on the edge. We’re not the only ones with people who are troubled, or convinced of racist and xenophobic ideology. We AREthe only ones who give those people easy and legal access to weapons of mass destruction and call it freedom. It is not mental illness. It’s not video games. It’s not polarization. It is easy access to guns. Period. And I know that there will be pulpits all across the country that will say not a word about this, or maybe offer up another prayer or light a candle. We don’t have enough candles here to light one for every victim over the past 24 hours, I don’t see how we can stay silent about it. I can’t stay silent about it.
There is a very good reason that this subject belongs in our churches and pulpits. Here in our so-called “Christian nation,” we have our orientations all messed up, our relationship to guns is as twisted as our relationship with money, just like the man in the parable that Jesus uses to teach the gathered crowd. The garden we are growing is full of dead plants and weeds, and is producing little fruit of the spirit that Paul lifts up in his letters. Where is love, peace, kindness, gentleness or self-control?
The 12th chapter of Luke opens with Jesus talking to a crowd of thousands, so many, the text says, that they trample each other’s feet. He takes the opportunity to teach the gathered masses some difficult lessons about hiding behind religious masks and whispering one thing in private but another in public. He warns them that when they make mistakes from ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s one thing…but willful insincerity, rationalizing away injustice, dismissing real impact with solemn moments of silence is devastating to your soul.
That’s when someone calls out from the crowd with this issue about his brother’s inheritance, maybe just to change the subject ’cause things are hitting pretty close to home, I’d imagine, with all the talk of integrity. They don’t want the introspection, just simple answers to simple questions that they get to ask. After dismissing the man’s request for a quick ruling on his family squabble by saying, “Hey, I’m not the judge of you,” he tells this story about a rich man who he calls a fool. Now, in our context the story doesn’t begin very strongly. After all, from a North American capitalism perspective, why is this rich man called a fool? He’s made a bunchof money, surely a self-made man, and he’s planning…SAVING…for his future. What in the world is wrong with that? We prize such behavior!
The pronoun used by the foolish rich man in all of his machinations about what to do with his vast wealth is the first-person singular. What shall “I” do? How do I protect “my” stuff? And therein lies the piece of wisdom that we are meant to uncover. It is not wealth, nor is it possessions that will bring us life. It is not a better brand of violence that will bring us security, nor war that will bring peace. Once our basic needs are met, social scientists note, we begin a bell curve moving farther away from life-giving things and into the realm of the soul-crushing world of things like greed and selfishness that mistake stuff for life, and money for love, just like we can mistake violence as security, or a gun as freedom.
It is not that God doesn’t want us to save, like for our retirement or for college or any other future needs. It is not that God doesn’t want us enjoy our lives and to celebrate, Jesus clearly like a party. It’s not that God doesn’t want us to be safe, to be free from violence. No, this is a wisdom lesson about how we achieve these goals, and whether or not stashing away more stuff than we could ever use can produce our security, or whether a good guy with a gun will ever truly prevent a bad guy with a gun. It is about how our lives are oriented: whether that is toward ourselves and our own narrow interests and fickle desires, or if it is toward God and our neighbor, toward God’s intention to bless and redeem the world.
Maybe now you understand how I see this parable connected to our gun-loving culture just as completely as I see it connected to our money-loving culture. Both things are about our orientation, they are about the things we say matching up to the things we do, they are about our personal interests and God’s intentions. Jesus uses the example of money, and I believe would use the example of guns today, to say that the way we see things and the way that God sees things just aren’t the same. He tells us of the futility of choices made in isolation from the love of God and neighbor. Those choices always get us off track.
It is perhaps too soon to know, and we want to gather facts and let the investigation work it’s way out. In these early stages, it appears that the shooting in El Paso is another lone, young, white male with a manifesto and a massive amount of ammunition. We may find out it was purchased legally, or mostlylegally, and we may not. We may get a glimpse of his motivation, and I suspect that we already have strong inclinations about them. But we do know at least one thing – we have seen time and time again people in places of persuasion make the same kinds of choices the rich man makes, using a lot of “I” pronouns, asking what’s best for them and their future, and leaving in the wake the impact of a collective good, the love of God and neighbor cast aside for personal gain. We have seen the cult of individual “freedom” trump the necessity of collective responsibility again and again. We know that there is a culture that sees us as in competition with one another, with the wealthiest and most heavily armed as the victors, and that mentality is absolutely fused with racial animosity, the lie of white supremacy and a twisted theology of God. Foolish, Jesus reminds us. That is foolish. This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, what good will they do you? That’s what happens when you fill your barn with self and not with God.
What have we stored up, here in the most “Christian nation on earth?” We have certainly stored up guns and ammunition, in an ideological dedication to a Second Amendment that we have turned into an idol. And we have certainly stored up silence about our original sins – the crime of slavery and the evil of white supremacy that fueled slavery, Jim Crow and now fuels a more underground and sinister movement. We can say that this young man acted alone, and it will be said. We will deny the connections when it is revealed that he sought to kill immigrants, brown-skinned people. We will spin and dodge and duck when we see how he went to the place that’s all over the news with a gun he can get anywhere, and carry anywhere, in the state of Texas fueled by the rhetoric from many public figures at the highest offices in the land about “dangerous invaders” and “rapists” who are taking our jobs. He didn’t go on his own, he went with with his marching orders in hand.
This is what we have stored up in our barns, so much so that we’ve built new ones, bigger ones, to hold the excess. We have so much of it that we can’t even see anything beyond it at times. We have all the money and all the power and all the resentment and all the rage and all the anxiety and all the fear we could ever need. And God comes to remind us, you foolish people. What do you think you’re going to do with all of that?
The whole of chapter 12 in Luke’s gospel is Jesus telling his disciples some hard truths about fear and trust, about what seeking a new way of life will mean to their existing relationships and patterns, and about the dramatic impact that can come about when you actually begin to do the things that you preach about. He tells the crowd, that I imagine dwindles with every word he says, that he has come to bring a fire to earth, to divide father against son and mother against daughter, that to whom much is given, much will be expected. He tells them hard truths, none of them easy. There isn’t an easy button in the way of Jesus, for the way of Jesus doesn’t just want a political revolution, it wants a transformation of our souls, and that means consistent and dedicated work. There’s no law that we can pass which will cleanse our hearts, but we need to pass some laws. There’s no funding that can secure our anxiety, but we need to fund lots of social services. There’s no sermon that can alter our cultural ethic, but we need to keep preaching. There is no magic fix, no single solution to the problems we face.
This is the work of the Kin-dom, the dream we evoke each and every Sunday through song and prayer. It feels very distant to me this morning, for my heart is saturated with pain and heaviness. We can mourn the lives lost, offer prayers and support for those in the impact zone, which I think might be all of us anymore. We can pray, and should, but we must also remember that faith without works is dead, and there’s a garden that needs tending. So don’t remain neutral, standing just outside the garden’s edge, for you cannot do anything there. Speak out in the ways you can, even when it makes you uncomfortable. Do some work on how you feel and why you feel that way. Make sure that you know your own heart. Keep asking why we cannot have safety measures at least equal to the ones that we place on driving cars – seatbelts and traffic laws don’t end car accidents, but they help. And can’t we just helpthe problem? Even a little bit?
God, I hope so.