Sermon text: John 17: 20-26
On April 20, 1999 I was in my 7th Grade reading class when our teacher told us the news: there was a school shooting in Colorado in a school called Columbine. Lots of people were dead.
I remember my teacher being unnerved by the news. We all were. Our class, as young as we were, talked for a few moments and pondered the why’s and the how’s of the atrocity.
Even though it was 23 years ago I can recall that moment. I can also recall learning more every night on the news about the two assailants, as well as the 12 students and the 1 teacher who died in the massacre. I learned that a former next-door neighbor now attended the high school. We heard non-stop about pipe bombs and concealing guns and journals with manifestos.
In that moment we were one. One in our shock. One in our grasping for understanding. One in our grief. But even though we were one, we didn’t believe the violence would happen again and again.
Since Columbine we cycle though mass casualty shootings every so often in this country. The events reside in the recesses of our brains. Nickel Mines. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Marjory Stoneman. These are all school shootings I can name off the top of my head and I know that there are dozens more.
This week we all took notice when an 18 year old opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In the wake of his actions 19 families will never welcome their children home again. Two teachers will never instruct or retire or see their loved ones. And one teenager, as lost and misguided as he was, will never know wholeness and peace, and his family will grieve and most likely live in shame.
Every one of these shootings is a gut punch to our society, no matter if it was the racially motivated shooting in Buffalo last week, or the antisemitic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 or the anti-gay shooting in 2016 that killed 50 people at a nightclub in Orlando. They all hurt, all of the venues, be they movie theatres or concerts or colleges. But elementary kids…that’s soul crushing.
In the aftermath, we are all one. Jesus’ words for us come true, that we might experience unity. However, I doubt that a unity of grief is what he had in mind. But that’s what we are, united in grief. The problem is that that unity will suffer in the very next breath.
Because public safety is politicized. Guns are politicized. Mental health is politicized. Race, sexuality, religion, and all the other possible motivating factors in the these shootings are politicized. Each issue becomes a wedge and we are polarized.
We are all one in our grief, but we are not all one in our actions. Time and again these horrible tragedies grip our nation, many times over than any other country on earth. Time and again we grieve, we offer our thoughts and prayers, we muse over godlessness, security, arming more people, violence in media and games and entertainment, mental health, and sometimes…sometimes we might actually talk about guns. And we do nothing. And the violence continues. It may take a deranged monster to kill school children, but it take an inhumane society to maintain the conditions for these shootings to happen again and again.
Pastor, what can we do? That was the question I received this week, many times over. A question of exasperation and deep sadness that comes from feeling helpless.
In return, I confess, that I don’t have many answers. I have ideas. I know that something needs to be done about the ease of which people can acquire firearms in this country. Our love and idolatry of guns fuels this needless sacrifice of teachers and student at the altar of firearms. Certainly gun advocates and gun control groups could work together to help prevent these events. So what can we do? Pray for collaboration. Pray for cooperation. Pray for unity. Pray for common ground.
Certainly we could also do better promoting mental health in our country. Nobody was born seeking to kill elementary school children. No one is born hating. We need to be more robust in our care with mental health concerns instead of merely scapegoating people with mental health problems as if they’re the only outlier in these mass casualty situations.
But hand in hand with these two obvious needs of genuine action for gun safety and mental health, we need each other, especially when we are wrought with grief.
We are the church, and we are bound together by something greater than any political or societal divide. We are bound together by the Gospel of Christ Crucified. We belong to the risen Lord. We are one together just as Jesus and the Father are one.
This week, at our Thursday Morning Bible Study, for 60 minutes we talked about the school shooting and guns and the reasons why these events happen before we ever cracked open the Bible. A diverse group of opinions were shared as we gathered around our tables and talked. We trusted. We did not pass judgment. We helped each other to process and to learn and to question and to seek new life and new hope as Christians living in the shadow of deep darkness.
Pastor, what can we do? We can begin with dialogue.
I realize that this might seem trivial. I know that a dozen people talking in a fellowship hall may not write legislation or stop bullets. But, if we, in our unity of faith, can have difficult conversations with each other, then we will slowly begin to change the world, because dialogue, honest to God dialogue is in short supply. Imagine what would happen if our leaders actually dialogued with each other instead of listing off tired tropes and sound bites.
God has given us his glory. The glory of new life, the glory of peace, the glory of mercy.
May God give us the strength to not live or die by the sword. May God turn our swords into plowshares. May God guard the lives of the saints and rescue us from the hand of the wicked. May God give us unity, in more than our heartache.
This week, the streets of heaven are too crowded with 10-year-old saints. May we have the courage to do something to make sure we never add to their number. AMEN