Monday, June 12, 2017

Needed Encouragement


A year ago, as we were preparing for the early service on Sunday morning, June 12, news was breaking that there had been a shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. I can't remember whether there was time to add that tragedy to the printed-out form of the Prayers of the People before the service started, but I do remember that it wasn't until the following Sunday that the names of the victims were known and included in the prayers. On the morning when the news broke, I remember feeing a mixture of sympathy, surprise, and frustration at another mass shooting, but it wasn't until several days or even weeks later that I began to appreciate the magnitude of what had happened at the Pulse nightclub--a magnitude measured in ways that transcend a body count.

Not long after the shooting in Orlando--maybe even the Sunday after--I went to church at All Saints' Chapel in Sewanee, where I was taking some classes in a continuing education program. The preacher was the Rev. Dr. James F. Turrell, a member of the faculty at the School of Theology. He offered a powerful, disturbing, inspiring sermon in response to the overall increase in gun violence that we have experienced in recent years, the Pulse nightclub shooting in particular, and the need for the gospel and its ministers to confront the powers of evil that are at work in our world. In the sermon, he mentioned the absolute requirement that preachers steer clear of advocating for a particular candidate or ballot measure, but he pressed us hard toward the absolute necessity that preachers engage politics in the sense in which that word means "the ordering of our public life." It is our duty to do so. I left with a new sense not only of possibility but also demand. I am a preacher. Like it or not, I am a prophet. I have something to give.

Because yesterday, June 11, was a Sunday, the feast of St. Barnabas is transferred to today. Perhaps I'm making too much of that happy accident, but I can't help but read the biblical story of Barnabas without feeling again the encouragement I need to lend my voice and effort and ministry to the reordering of the structures of power in this world until God's reign is established fully. In the Daily Office reading from Acts 4, we learn that Barnabas was a native of Cyprus who sold his field and brought the money to the apostles, laying it at their feet. Later in Acts 11 and again in Acts 13, we read of Barnabas, so-named Son of Encouragement, gathering together those early Christians who were scattered because of the first persecution and exhorting them to remain faithful in the face of those who would try to kill them and later of Barnabas' co-commission with Saul/Paul to take that good news to the Gentiles. The story of Barnabas is of a disciple of Jesus who gave all that he had for the building up of God's kingdom in the face of considerable adversity. Wouldn't he encourage us to do the same?

Every shooting death is a tragedy. The Pulse nightclub shooting is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Forty-nine victims were killed, and another fifty-eight were wounded, and the assailant, Omar Mateen, was also killed by police. It is no accident that the deadliest mass shooting was perpetrated at a gay nightclub. This was an attack on freedom, on our values, on our nation, and also specifically on those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. This was an attack on the vulnerable among us--those whose identity is still a source of exclusion in our society. It was an act of hatred and violence perpetrated in a place of love and acceptance. Over the last 60 years...20 years...2 years, we have come a long way in accepting LGBTQ people in our common life, but the violence of the Pulse shooting reminds us that the world is still not the place God dreams it could be.

What are we doing about it? Today, we will remember the victims--those who died and those who still carry these wounds with them--in prayer. But will that prayer lead to action? Will we stand up for the peaceable reign of God? Will we call for a ban on assault rifles and high-volume magazines? Will we march and write letters and call our representatives in an effort to help change our nation's culture from one in which guns are a sacred right to one in which guns are a regulated privilege? Will those of us who serve in a church that still struggles with the full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals change the way we are the church until those barriers fall away? Will we preach sermons that not only articulate the kingdom of God but that also exhort our congregations to be a part of that kingdom's coming?

In the past twelve months, my sermons have changed. I find myself a little less worried about making people in the pews uncomfortable and a little more worried about neglecting my duty as a preacher of the gospel and a prophet for God's kingdom. Don't get me wrong: my self-interested survival instinct is still very strong, but my heart is open in a new way. I have not done enough. I need this encouragement to keep working. I ask God to help me bring more of myself to the apostles' feet. We all have something to give--something to share with the cause of God's reign. God doesn't need us for anything, but we need God, and we need leaders in the Christian community who help us see God when we need God most. And we need God most right now.

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