St. Paul’s has been using red vestments each time there is a publicized mass shooting incident in the US. We’ve been doing this since the Charleston attack, and no, actually, it was not my idea. This one came from the rector. As a result, the prevalence of gun violence has been front and center in our congregation all summer.
I should admit here that gun violence was the first political issue I was ever passionate about. I started following the issue when I was 12, due to some events in my family, and the advocacy of a 7th grade history teacher who kept pointing out how history intersected with current events, and shouldn’t we start forming our own opinions on these things?
So, I have a weirdly specific knowledge of the history of gun control in this country. Along with the Israel/Palestine conflict, it is one of those topics where you need to be sure you have an extra half hour before you engage me in conversation thereupon.
But I’ve never spoken about it from the pulpit. Part of that is that Jesus never speaks about guns in the gospel (swords, though, he has some opinions on. #swordcontrolnow!) And part of that is that this is America, and gun control is not an unemotional topic. In church, or at least in the churches I’ve served, I actually believe it is easier and less polarizing to bring up gay marriage, or racism, or Medicaid expansion, than it is to bring up guns.
Until this week. I talked about it this week, because I feel like someone needs to talk about it–it’s the elephant, staring in the corner of the room each time politicians lament in the aftermath of another tragedy, and mourn the ‘unforeseen’ and the ‘unpreventable’ events.
So here’s what I said. (It’s in roughly note form, just for a change of pace. Yay?)
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
August 30, 2015
Proper 15, Ordinary Time Year B
—When I spent a summer in Israel and Palestine, my parents were understandably stressed. They were not huge fans of this plan of mine, but they knew from long experience that talking me out of something I had decided to do was a non starter.
—So the day before I got on the plane, my mother “helped me pack.”
—She made copies of every piece of paper I had—passport, airplane ticket, medication list, social security card, drivers’ license, everything.
-And what she didn’t make a copy of, she sorted into ziplock baggies. She would not sit down and SHE WOULD NOT REST until everything I owned was either copied in duplicate, stored in a ziplock, or tied together with rubber bands.
—This made no sense. It was a weird obsession, and not at all like my mother.
—But it wasn’t about organization at all, of course. It was her way of Doing Something to help me, since she couldn’t process the hugeness of me in Jerusalem for 3 months.
—Big picture was too scary, so she went nuts with the little things. The things she could get her hands on. Those would save me!
—I’m going to venture a guess to say that this impulse is where the Pharisees have their problem.
—We can’t deal with the immensity of what we’re supposed to be facing—so we get caught up in this minute arguments.
—Rather than sort out how well we’re loving God, caring for creation and loving our neighbor—which are really big things to tackle, and take a lot of work and thought, we get caught on whether the most important thing to talk about is works or grace, or whether being religious means you have to hate these people or those people.
—and it’s not from a lack of caring, necessarily, these arguments. It’s from being overwhelmed by the bigger stuff, maybe. So we get fixated on the tiny stuff.
—And so, behold the Pharisees.
—Now, the Pharisees get a bum rap, which is too bad, because they’re really rather fantastic. The Pharisees were basically one of many groups within the Judaism during Jesus’ time who were working really hard for a reformation.
—The problem had come up that the vast majority of Jews living in Judea really weren’t observant at all. They didn’t have a clue about their own religion.
—Not because they didnt’ care, but just because being observant of religion back then was HARD.
—You had to go all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem several times a year, and you had to tote along your live offerings, and it was expensive and next-to-impossible if you lived up north in Galilee (like Jesus—because that’s at least a week’s trek there, then a week’s trek back.)
—So, what ended up happening was that the only people who really WERE religious were those who had been paid for it, and those who could afford it—the priests and those who lived in Jerusalem and who had $$$.
—That’s hardly what God wants, judging from the prophets, right?
—This problem concerned the Pharisees, so they worked on making Judaism more accessible.
—They wanted EVERYONE, no matter who, no matter how poor or rich, to participate in the worship and service of God.
—WHICH IS A GREAT IDEA.
—They worked on teaching the average Farmer Joe in Galilee about the Torah, and how even he! could observe it without a nearby temple. He can say his daily prayers! He can assemble in the synagogue! He can purify himself in the mikveh, which he can build in his own backyard! EVERYONE CAN BE A GOOD JEW.
—And, for the record, it’s the Pharisees that save Judaism after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem.
—So don’t hate on the Pharisees. Their big idea was great. In fact, Jesus agrees with the big idea of the movement—
—His problem is that they get caught up in the minutae…because the overall goal is so big.
—Rather than concentrating on bringing the good news of God to the masses, what the Pharisees seem to have ended up doing was getting into fights about handwashing. And the cleanliness of bowls.
—And that stuff isn’t the goal. Religious observance—loving God, loving your neighbor is the goal. And those things are only helpful insofar as they help you reach that goal.
—And meanwhile, the Pharisees largely weren’t addressing the major issues that were rampant in society.
—The part of the reading the lectionary skips is where Jesus points out that the Pharisees went nuts over handwashing, but had no problem with people dedicating money to the Temple, and leaving their parents and relatives penniless.
—They’re obsessing over the details, because the wider issues are too big. Too overwhelming to change. You can’t change something so big as the economic structure of the Temple, but hand washing?! LETS GET ON IT. THAT WILL MAKE GOD HAPPY WITH US.
—But here’s the thing—when doing the work of God, there’s nothing too big to contemplate. There’s no problem too overwhelming to change.
—When God calls us into the world, we are called not just to small things, but to big things. So we can’t let the little things distract us. The little things cannot save us. The small things don’t hold salvation.
—It’s in this context that I want to talk about the events of the past few weeks. We’ve been marking every mass shooting in the US by placing red vestments on the altar. And as you may have noticed, we’ve been wearing red a lot. Rare is the week we can keep green up—and in fact, there have not been two sundays together, since the beginning of the summer, in which green has been on the altar.
— It’s not your imagination—mass shootings are on the rise in the US—USA today estimates that mass shootings (situations where someone kills 4 or more people) happen about once every 8 days. But we don’t actually know how many there are, because there’s no mandatory reporting being done.
—And each time it happens, the same refrain gets trotted out—oh things would be different if those people had just been armed. We can be safe if we just have more guns. Over and over again. It makes sense—we want to be safe, we want to feel secure, and that’s a big, huge problem that seems too big to solve. So the temptation is to look for some small thing to fix on.
—But you know what? Currently, 42% of the guns in the world are owned by civilians in the US. Think about that. 42% of the guns in the WHOLE WORLD are owned by civilians in the US.***
We have a lot of guns. And still, we have more deaths through gun violence than any other country on the face of the earth. So the pertinent question becomes–exactly how many guns do we need before we are safe? Before the shootings stop?
—But more importantly—we are Christians. We aren’t called to put our faith in little things, in hand washing, in guns, in things we can hold onto and see.
—Our safety, we believe, comes from God. Not a weapon. God alone makes us safer. We cannot depend on guns or weapons or more or better armor.
Because God calls us to love each other. And serve one another. And care for one another. Which we can hardly do when we live in mortal fear of everyone around us.
So, as hard as it is, we have to put down these small things that consume our attention—these idols that distract from the God we worship. We have to put down the guns that promise safety, the hand washing that promises holiness. And we have to embrace the vulnerability of believing that God alone can make us safe, and God alone can make us holy.
And God alone has already shown us the path of life, stretching out ahead of us. We just need to put down these small idols, and trust that God is enough.
*** That statistic came from this: http://www.vox.com/2015/8/24/9183525/gun-violence-statistics
Perhaps even more than controlling firearms we need to care for those who are so hurt, so angry, so disenfranchised or so mentally ill, that they find violence to be a viable option.
I see no reason we couldn’t do both.