Thursday, June 23, 2016

"No More, No More, No More" Response to Orlando Massacre by Pastor Greg Russell, St. Andrew UCC, Sarasota, Florida, June 19, 2016

“WHAT, THEN, SHALL WE SAY . . .?”        
Romans 8:31-35, 37-39
Matthew 5:43-48
Pastor Greg Russell on Holy Thursday at our Ecumenical Eucharist

     So, last Sunday when Lucy Painter and I gathered at the back of the sanctuary to come down the aisle, she said, “Real shame about Orlando.”   And I said, “What happened in Orlando?”   And that’s how I found out about what has turned out to be the worst mass shooting on U.S. soil.   A madman with a grudge against gay people and using ISIL as a quasi-religious cover, armed with a military grade rifle, began his cowardly work with devastating results at Pulse nightclub – 49 dead and 53 wounded with several more expected to die from their wounds.

      And a week later as we bury and mourn our dead and try to help those who have been wounded to heal, I have to preach.   Preachers preach, so I have to say something.   What can I possibly say to you?   As I told Lucy last Sunday as we stood in front of the communion table, and you watched me try to absorb what she had just told me, “I’m out of words; I just don’t know what to say…”

   One of the things I can say to you with confidence is that “Terrorist Attack” is not a heading you’ll find in the concordance at the back of your study Bible.   I know.   I looked.

     But I didn’t stop looking there; in addition, I looked under the heading, “enemies,” and this is the very first listing I found.   In his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew, chapters 5-7), Jesus is recorded as saying this:
       You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love
       your neighbor and hate your enemy.’   But I say to
       you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who
       persecute you.’ . . . If you love only those who
       love you, do not even the tax-collectors and the  
       gentiles do the same? . . . No, you must be perfect,
       even as your heavenly father is perfect.” 
                                                                           (Matthew 5:43-48)

     And my first reaction is: “Please, Jesus!  Don’t ask this of me – not right now!   I just can’t do this!   I hope we track down all the people who have inspired and carried out this awful thing, and grind them into a powder so fine that the wind can’t find enough of them to blow away!”   I feel like Peter, who, after his initial encounter with Jesus, cries out, “Lord, get away from me, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:1-11) 

     “You expect too much, Jesus!   I can’t be like you --- I just can’t do it!   Now I know why so many of those who initially followed you fell away!   Your sayings are too hard!   They require too much!   There is an extravagance of goodness here that I simply cannot approach!

     “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that’s what I want!   Give me that old time religion!!   Right now, that’s what I want.”

    Except, as Gandhi once observed, . . . when everyone operates out of ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth,’ the world winds up blind and toothless.   If we descend to that level, then they have won already.  

     You may think this is excessively confessional, but surely I am not the only one on the horns of this particular dilemma here this morning.   I confess this barbarous act is a hard test of my faith in a just and loving God.   And over the course of the next days and weeks, I will find out whether my faith is of a kind that is fitted out for foul weather as well as fair.   For, you see, the true test of any people comes, not when things are easy and going our way.   It comes when the bottom falls out of our lives, and things are hard.   When that happens – personally or nationally -- can we muster a faith that gets us through?

     You see, friends, there are two kinds of faith in God.   One says “if” . . . then.  “If all goes well, if life is hopeful, prosperous and happy, then I will believe in God.”   The other says, “though . . .”   Though everything goes wrong, though the forces of evil triumph and the cross looms, nevertheless will I believe in God.

     The Bible is full of this contrast – on the one side Jacob saying: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I shall come again to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God . . .” [Genesis 28:20ff]   That is fair weather faith – bargaining with God for our trust if all goes well -- and when things fall apart, of course, it collapses.

     But there is another kind of faith recorded in scripture – a faith that begins, not with the word “if” but with the word “though:”
     Yea, though he slay me, yet will I trust him . . . [Job 13:15]
     Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
        death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me . . . [Psalm 23:4]
     Though the waters roar and foam, though the
       mountains be shaken in the heart of the sea, yea
       the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is
       our refuge . . . [Psalm 46:2-3]

     Well, friends, I call on you to testify with me that this is one of those “though” moments.  
     Though the hosts of evil round us
        Scorn our Christ, assail his ways,
     From the fears that long have bound us
        Free our hearts to faith and praise.
     Grant us wisdom; grant us courage
         For the living of these days.  (Harry Emerson Fosdick: “God of Grace and God of Glory”)

I don’t know about you, but right now I need plenty of both wisdom and courage to quell my rage.   I candidly admit that by myself I am not equal to the task.

     The simple fact of the matter is that we need each other.   As we pray for the needs of those who are hurt and hurting, as we pray for our own needs, you make me stronger by your presence here.   And God who hears our prayers will hold close those who are dead and those who mourn, just as God holds us close.

     God must be very sad at the way we treat one another.   I cannot help but believe that when this horrible thing happened last Sunday morning, God’s tears were the first tears that were shed.

     As predictably as Sarasota heat in July, we heard calls for “a moment of silence” this past week.  SILENCE IS NOT WHAT WE NEED!!!   WE NEED TO BE SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF OUR LUNGS!!!   NO MORE!!   NO MORE!!!   NO MORE!!!

     Some of us may think that the LGBTQ battle is over, that it ended with the legalization of same-gender marriage last year.   Some of us may even think that the LGBTQ community has been greedy and overreaching by “infringing” on the “rights of the majority” – rights LGBTQ folk continue to be denied.   And to an extent, I can understand why you might think that.

     As a whole, we like to distance ourselves from the past when it is ugly.   We love fairy-tale endings, particularly ones in which no one has to deal with feelings of guilt or accountability.   This kind of thinking is not new – just look at pretty much EVERY conversation surrounding our rape culture or conversation about race.

     We do this so we can wash our hands of the atrocities committed in our country on a daily basis.   We do it so we can chalk up this horrific shooting as the act of a single extreme madman rather than acknowledging our complicity in shaping the culture which makes this kind of crime not only possible but inevitable.   That approach keeps it easy and comfortable and distant for us.   It is also deadly.   It does not fix the situation, but merely perpetuates the cycle of violence in place.

     It would be comforting to think that the LGBTQ battle is over, but that is far from true.   We dare not forget the struggles and injustices that have shaped and continue to shape this community.   We dare not forget that our own President Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge the AIDS crisis until a million people had died from it.   We dare not forget that Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured, and died because of his sexual orientation, or that Brandon Teena was raped and murdered for being a transgender man.

     We dare not forget the LGBTQ youth who took their lives because of bullying, harassment and rejection.   We dare not forget that over 20 transgender women – many of them women of color – were murdered in the last year (2015) alone.   We dare not forget that 52% of the LGBTQ population lives in a state that does not prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

     LGBTQ people are still discriminated against and victimized daily.   This shooting was not an isolated event, or remnants of antiquated homophobia, or just religious extremism.   It stems from a very real homophobic culture that exists in our country – the cul-ture many of us contribute to, whether we want to admit it or not.

     If we believe that “tolerance” is enough, we are part of the problem.   We don’t have to beat up an LGBTQ person to commit a hate crime or encourage another person to do so.   If we misgender Caitlyn Jenner, cringe at the thought of gay affection or use phrases like “no homo” or “Oh, that’s so gay,” we contribute to the culture that fostered this crime.

     You see, tolerance isn’t a real thing; anything less than accep-tance is just gross indifference or suppressed hatred.   Loving Neil Patrick Harris, but finding the thought of “gay sex” gross is not acceptance; embracing white, gay men while rejecting trans people is not acceptance.   Every time we do that, we tell criminals like the Pulse shooter that they are not alone in their thinking.   We send the implicit message that LGBTQ folk are a nuisance and an intrusion only meant to be tolerated for social appearances.   In doing these things, we not only dehumanize an entire group of people; we provide the social ammunition needed for someone to commit these kinds of atrocities.  

     If we would be allies, we have to be active allies and truly combat homophobia and transphobia when we see it.   That means calling someone out when they say something hurtful or ugly.   It means caring more about what is right than what others think of us.   It means not tokenizing LGBTQ folk, or dismissing their struggles, or spouting some “liberal” thoughts just to score social brownie points.   The LGBTQ community doesn’t need for us to patronize them; THEY NEED US TO STAND UP FOR WHAT IS RIGHT!!  
This community is one of the most resilient groups in the world, but just because they can withstand the worst of storms does not mean they should be subjected to them.

     They should not have to live in a world where their love is questioned and dismissed.   They should not have to live knowing that many of their members are on the streets or in the cemeteries.    And they shouldn’t have to live in a world where they mourn the deaths of fifty of their sisters and brothers.   They deserve better; they deserve better from our government, they deserve better from our society, and they damn sure deserve better from the Church at large!   We shouldn’t have to tell them, “It gets better;” it’s time for us to be able to tell them, “It is better.”   In fact, it’s past time.

     So, this morning, I want us to covenant with one other that we will do three things:

       First: We need to stop being bystanders.   We need to
       speak up for our gay friends and neighbors.  They cannot
       afford for us to laugh at the gay jokes. But more important:
       They cannot afford for us to be silent!   They need for us to
       help them advocate for same-gender partners to be able to
       make medical decisions. (Thank God Pres. Obama relaxed
       HIPPAA rules following the Orlando shooting for that very
       reason!)   Just last Sunday in this very space we sang God of
       Grace and God of Glory, and in particular the line: Save us
       from weak resignation to the evils we deplore . . .   I heard us. 
       We sang it well; we sang with gusto; I even thought we meant
       Second: We need to remember that the shooter and ISIL
       are part of a political movement that is using Islam as a
       pretense.   They represent just a tiny minority of fanatics
       who no more accurately represent the basic tenets of Islam
       than Jim Jones (of Jonestown), or David Koresh (of Waco)
       accurately represent the basic tenets of Christianity.   For the
       safety of our Muslim sisters and brothers, we must not fail
       to remember this and to get that word out to the larger

       Third, and finally: We need to remember who we are and,
       more importantly, whose we are.   For we belong to Jesus
       Christ, through whom the Lord of history has revealed an
       uncanny knack for bringing forth good out of evil.   If you’re
       ever in doubt of that, please refer to the cross for exhibit A.

     What, then, shall we say about all this?   The last word I shall give over to the Apostle Paul, who, in his letter to the church at Rome, writes (8:31-39):

     Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?   Shall
     tribulation,or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness,
     or sword? . . .   No!   In all these things we are more than con-
     querors through him who loves us.   For I am utterly certain   
     that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor
     things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor
     depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate
     us from the love of God made known in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
                                                                              (Romans 8:31-39)

Nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God!

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.   Amen. 

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