This post approximates my sermon from this past Sunday, February 18, at State Street United Methodist Church.
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:16-20).
As we celebrated Ash Wednesday just a few days ago, we remembered that the ashes imposed upon our foreheads were expressions of grief and mourning for our human mortality and sinfulness.
Mortality and sinfulness.
On that very same day, miles away (and worlds apart) from the Ash Wednesday services in our chapel, mortality and sinfulness were conspicuous at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a young man armed with fury and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle killed seventeen students and faculty members.
Because of my faith, I believe that each was made in the image of God, that all of them were lovingly and uniquely knit together by God in their mothers’ wombs, and that not one of them fell to the ground apart from God. I believe each was–and is–precious in the sight of the Lord.
So, for me, and I suspect for churches and Christians all across our land, Ash Wednesday’s ashes have become a sign of grief and mourning for the mortality of seventeen precious lives and for the sinfulness of the shooter and all like him who have such callous disregard for God’s good gift of life.
Nearly one thousand seven hundred years ago, the season of Lent likely began as an intensive period of fasting, prayer, and repentance for candidates preparing for baptism on Easter morning. From these roots, our practice of “giving up” something for Lent is more than merely an act of self-discipline; it is an act of repentance, of walking away from something that stands between us and God.
Most often, the ashes upon our foreheads are very self-centered. We mourn our own mortality, and we tend to repent from our own individual sinfulness. Less often do we lift up our shared mortality or our collective sin, but I believe this year’s Ash Wednesday massacre in Parkland invites us to just such an awareness.
So, Christians, let’s walk away. Let’s give up mass shootings for Lent.
It may sound ludicrous or hopelessly idealistic, but walking away from evil is what we Christians do. It’s why our ancestors in the faith got a forty-day head start in their walk away from sin and evil before beginning a journey with Christ through baptism.
We United Methodists continue to acknowledge the primacy of turning away from evil in the covenant we share for baptism, confirmation, or profession of faith. Before asking a person to profess faith in Jesus Christ, we begin by asking about the person’s willingness to “give up” or to walk away from sin and evil.
The first covenant question to the candidate is, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”
The second question is similar: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
To give up mass shootings for Lent, let’s begin with our vows: Renounce. Reject. Resist. Repent.
Renounce! Renounce the wickedness and evil of mass shootings.
Have the courage to say both often and out loud that there is no place in our society–and certainly no place within the reign of Jesus Christ–for this deplorable evil.
For far too long and at the expense of far too many precious God-knit lives has the church remained silent, or at least relatively quiet. Our failure to renounce the evil epidemic of mass shootings is a failure to keep our covenant vows.
Worse yet, failing to decry the evil is in fact accommodating to the evil, accepting the evil, and–God forbid–becoming complicit to the evil.
There is power in saying the words. When we can name the opponent, we can form a game plan or battle plan. When we can name the cancer, we can begin to treat it. When we can name (and renounce) the evil, we can begin to defeat it.
Christians, speak up! Say that mass shootings are nothing but wickedness, and they are outside the will of God.
Renounce, and then reject this systemic evil.
Reject the notion that the heartless mass-scale reaping of human life is somehow an unavoidable consequence of living in a fallen, sinful world.
Reject that this is a secular problem, somehow removed from our lives of faith.
Reject the idea that the problem is too big, and we are helpless to do anything about it. Ours is the society that first landed a human on the moon. Ours is the society that eradicated polio. Ours can be the society to eradicate this evil too.
Reject the temptation to assign blame. Pointing a finger at parents, teachers, FBI, NRA, legislators, or law enforcement officers does not help. Arguing over who’s primarily at fault distracts us from finding common ground and mutual solutions.
Importantly for the sake of any meaningful progress, reject the temptation to politicize mass shootings and any potential solutions to this horrible evil. Otherwise, we will fall too easily and readily into our partisan trenches and continue to make the mass shooting madness an argument to be won against our foes, rather than a mutual evil to be confronted with our neighbors.
When we begin to talk about the availability of firearms and accessories, the temptation is to frame that conversation purely along partisan lines. We become either the protectors or the enemies of the Second Amendment. Reject the temptation to categorize and oppose someone politically just because firearms are the topic! There is room for conversation when we cease our arguments and see each other as neighbors, rather than partisan opponents.
When we begin to talk about the availability of mental healthcare, there is a similar temptation to devolve into arguments about profits, payers, universality, Obamacare, and other hyper-politicized terms and concepts. Again, this is not an argument to be won; instead, it is an evil to be eradicated. Reject the notion that mental healthcare conversations must necessarily become political debates.
The church and its individual members have been too idle, perhaps because we believe that the evil is too great and complex to be vanquished. Let me remind us that the proper name Satan means “the adversary” or “the obstacle.” As we seek to eradicate evil, the evil one will use anything–including petty arguments–to get in our way. Reject them!
Renounce, Reject, and Resist.
Resistance is active. It is not passive or submissive. Resisting means actively opposing the evil in our midst. It requires doing something.
You may be growing anxious because you suspect that I’m about to tell you to do something with which you disagree politically. I assure you I am not.
If the solution were easy, we would have identified and agreed upon it already. This is a complex evil without a simple solution. So, I will not dare tell you how to resist. I simply implore you to do something to combat this evil.
If you are convinced that the problem is the availability of particular firearms and accessories, do something about it! Contact your legislators today and share your convictions.
If you believe the availability, accessibility, or quality of mental healthcare is at the heart of this evil, do something about it! Lift your voice and advocate for greater funding, for more availability, for less stigmatization.
If you believe the FBI needs more resources to follow up on tips, or if you believe schools need more security measures or greater law enforcement presence, do something about it! Offer to pay more taxes, advocate for greater resources, and in the name of Jesus Christ, do something to resist the evil!
If you believe the fundamental problem is that hearts need to be changed, be a changer of hearts. Perhaps your church (like my church) is within a few meters of a nearby school. What if you proclaim that school your mission field? What if you resist the evil by doing everything in your power to ensure that every student in that school feels loved, embraced, and included in community?
There are thirty-five days remaining in the season of Lent. If every person who reads this blog reaches out to share the love of Christ with just one person per day for the remainder of Lent, thousands of people might be touched by that simple effort.
We shrink from the evil and do nothing because we assume there is nothing we can do. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 1930 hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” offers up this prayer to God: “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”
Enable us Lord to resist the evils that you call us to renounce and reject!
When you feel that you are too weak, and that your resistance is ineffective, recall the question from the United Methodist covenant, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
God empowers our resistance on behalf of Jesus Christ. That’s an important qualifier. Don’t let your resistance be merely about your opinions, convictions, or political affiliations. Let your resistance be in the name of and within the will of Jesus Christ.
How will you know if you’re doing the Lord’s will?
Repent. Turn to him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength through the remainder of this season of Lent.
Though I am saddened and hurt by all the critical rejection of “thoughts and prayers” over the past few days, I realize and embrace that we cannot simply pray for consolation for the families of the slaughtered innocents. We must also pray for God’s deliverance from this ongoing evil.
So, to know how to reject and resist, I suggest we spend this season in fasting and prayer to seek God’s wisdom. Fasting is not merely an act of self-denial; it is also an act of vulnerability and humility before God, reminding us of our ultimate dependence upon him. Let us prayerfully depend upon God to inspire and shape our rejection and resistance, so that they are Christlike and holy. Let us admit that we are ultimately dependent upon God’s wisdom and power to end this wickedness.
I hear God’s Spirit calling me to repent from the ways I have contributed to this systemic wickedness, not only in the larger world and community, but even in my own family.
I have not walked away from the gratuitous and profitable violence in the entertainment industry that numbs us to the effects and consequence of intentional harm to others.
I have not walked away from the kill tallies and headshots of video games that celebrate violence with point bonuses and allow our children to notch countless kills from the comfort of their own game consoles.
I have not led my congregation in heartfelt renunciation, rejection, resistance, and repentance each time another 17, or 58, or 33 innocent lives are lost in a mass shooting.
In fact, I repent that I am more familiar with the numbers than the names of the people senselessly slaughtered in our society. I have allowed them to become statistics, rather than beloved individuals created in the image of God.
I repent because I believe their deaths matter to God.
In the passage from Matthew’s gospel at the beginning of this post, Matthew tells the story of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents,” in which Herod, filled with fury, causes a mass killing in and around Bethlehem.
There are no known extrabiblical historical sources to verify the account, and the death total has been subject to speculation for generations. Given Bethlehem’s estimated population of only a few hundred people during Jesus’ lifetime, the number of children killed by Herod’s soldiers was probably a dozen or less. Still, Matthew associates this story with inconsolable weeping.
Whether a few children in Bethlehem, seventeen in Parkland, fifty-eight in Las Vegas, thirty-three at Virginia Tech, or any number anywhere, I believe God’s is the first heart to break when the innocent are slaughtered.
God knows enough mothers, fathers, and communities have wept inconsolably.
Through this season of Lent with the ashes fresh on our heads, we join with them in weeping over mortality and sinfulness.
Mortality and sinfulness.
So church, let’s give up mass shootings for Lent.
And let’s keep giving them up until Rachel weeps no more.