On June 22, 2016 by saintlukesgresham

Rev. Jennifer M. Creswell

Last Father’s Day it was Charleston. Then it was San Bernardino. This week (this week!) it’s Orlando. It’s been Newtown. It’s been Aurora. It’s been Littleton. It’s been Troutdale. And you all know what I’m talking about when I just say the name of the place. America as defined by its mass shootings. I heard Florida’s governor say last week that it was just Florida’s turn. Florida’s turn! Like this is some sort of Act of God that we have no control over. Like we just have to wait until it’s our turn and then walk out with a target on our bodies when a madman with a gun comes for us. You know what? God doesn’t act that way. Angry young men with guns act that way. And we are so fortunate that no one has come for us yet. But who knows how long that will last? We’ve been talking a lot this season about the Other, about how it’s such a human tendency to turn people into Others and Outsiders. We are always someone’s outsider, but never God’s.

But even sanctuaries have been disrupted by murderous violence. In Charleston, it was the inside of a church. In Orlando it was a nightclub but you know what? I learned something this past week. I’ve heard several friends tell stories about the gay bars and clubs that were their sanctuaries when no other places were. Even people who aren’t normally bar hoppers. Beyond being places to drink or pick up dates, gay bars have been sanctuaries where gay and lesbian people can be themselves and not be afraid. They’ve been uniquely “safe” places. And last Saturday night that illusion was shattered. No place is safe from hate. No person is immune to hate. I wish this weren’t true.

But we don’t have to stand powerless. We stand in the power of a God of great love. Our Gospel today tells a story of great love overcoming violence and we can, too. The most important thing to remember is that Jesus did not fight his enemies. He loved them. And Jesus also got stuff done. He didn’t sit at home praying for people to be healed, he went to where they were, touched them, and healed them. And if we want to get stuff done about gun violence, we are going to have to get out of our houses and give our prayers some feet. And we can do this. Because the living God created us, loves us, and empowers us to do this very work in the world. This could be a moment for Christianity in America. This could be the moment God has been preparing us for. Because our faith offers a beautiful alternative to the mess of hatred mixed with violence that keeps desecrating public spaces in America. I won’t tell you what to do. I know there are so many perspectives on the gun issue. But can we agree that our hearts are breaking? Can we agree that we don’t want to see this happen even one more time? Can we agree that America can do better? I ask you to pray. I ask you to listen to God. Seek God’s call for you in this struggle against mass shootings. What part is God giving you to play in ending this violence?

Scripture warns us about idols. Idols are dangerous, attractive things that make us believe false promises. Like money’s false promise that possessing it will give us power, stability, safety. Or like stuff’s false promise that the more we have, the more our lives will be easy, comfortable, beautiful, desirable. Alcohol and sugar are powerful idols that promise to make us feel good, to excite us, to hit the spot. Idols are tantalizing. They are attractive. The holy scriptures also tell us that idols defile; idols corrupt; idols hurt the people of God. And God says, ‘don’t have idols. I am the Lord.’ Our nation has made an idol out of the second amendment. There’s a difference between upholding the amendment and turning it into an idol. It has become more important to defend our right to bear arms than to defend human life. We honor those words in the Constitution more than we honor the words of our God who tells us Do Not Kill. We value this “right” of ours to own guns more than we value the lives of our own children. We believe our individual “freedom” to bear arms is worth more than our collective freedom not to be killed in the public places of our common life. Who are we as a nation, and what have we allowed ourselves to become? We are not one nation, under God, we are one nation, under guns, divided, with liberty and justice for those who carry.

We don’t always know what to do with stories like the one from Luke’s gospel. Until something like Orlando happens. I mean, demons. Really? Is there any way we can possibly explain a story like this to our non-Christian friends? What do we do with stories like this—stories we don’t really understand and can’t make sense of in a post-enlightenment age?

In another time, in another place, demons might not make sense. But can you see it now, a young man tormented and living alone? His family has abandoned him because there’s something too dangerous and terrifying inside him for them to face. He is alone and isolated, living in the tombs—in a place of death. He doesn’t have friends. He doesn’t have family. He’s not part of any communal relationships. Just lives alone with his inner critics—and he hurts himself. He beats himself up. He maims and harms his body because of the things inside him that won’t let him be at peace.

In shooting after shooting, the perpetrator is called an ‘angry young man.’ Sandy Hook. Aurora. Orlando. This young man was living in the tombs, apart from anything living or beautiful. Like the friendless, vision-less, hope-less young men living isolated lives of anger, fed by false religion, prejudice, and the delusion of their own inadequacy.

And this young man loses it. He’s acting unhinged and crazy and dangerous. And Jesus approaches him. Notice, Jesus doesn’t go in armed because good guys with weapons are the only way to stop bad guys with weapons. Jesus walks into the danger zone, into the middle of the violence, and he talks to the man. “What is your name?” Who are you really? Who were you created to be? What makes up your identity? Who knows you? What do you do? Who do you love?

That human connection, Jesus seeing the true person behind the demons, and Jesus loving him, heals the man. Jesus heals him and sends the demons packing. They don’t have power over him anymore.

Evil exists in the world. Is demon possession so far off from the urge to gun 49 people to death? Evil dressed up in the clothing of religion, in Omar Mateen’s case. Are these not demons infecting the soul of a man already weakened by demons of self-hatred, powerlessness, and anger? And not—not—the demon of being gay. Too many gay Christians have been told to ‘pray away the gay’ like that’s the demon inside them. Uh uh. Let’s be clear about what is evil: the urge to hurt and kill.

There’s some evidence that points to the possibility that Omar Mateen was attracted to men. He went to gay chats online and had been to Pulse several times before last Saturday night. A Florida paper reported, “Jim Van Horn, 71, told The Associated Press that Mateen was a regular at the club “He was trying to pick up people. Men,” he said.
While acknowledging he didn’t know Mateen well, Van Horn said: “I think it’s possible that he was trying to deal with his inner demons, of trying to get rid of his anger of homosexuality.””

How many others have been damaged by voices telling them to hate themselves? To change themselves? To be someone other than who God created them to be?

There is no excuse for what Omar Mateen did. Or for Adam Lanza or Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. They gave themselves over to the idols of violence and retribution. There’s absolutely nothing courageous about that. But come on. Let’s not put automatic assault rifles into the hands of angry, diminished people who can’t—or won’t—get better!

I’m not sure how to end this. I don’t have a neat conclusion. There is so much more to be said. How bout we end by doing something the Church is uniquely prepared to do: lament. Let’s read each of the 50 names of the people who were killed—yes, including Omar Mateen—followed by the toll of a bell. If you’re thinking, “that’s gonna take a loooong time,” yeah. It is. Amen.

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