God with us… Us with God?

Memorial Day. A day to honor those who gave their life for this country. So let us recall the hallowed dead.

18 students and 3 teachers in an elementary school in Texas. The Taiwanese church in southern California. The 10 killed, mostly black folks at the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, NY. As the Poet John McCrae wrote, “We are the Dead. Short days ago, We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie…”[1]

It would be easy to treat the problem as a technical fix. Remove all the guns, like Australia did, and we’re good. But it’s bigger than that. That’s not what I’m saying here at all. This is an adaptive challenge and it will require a lot of learning to solve where we are as a country in this moment.

I was born and raised with guns. My grandpa had them. My mom, being a single mom, had them. I was trained from a young age. When I met Kate, her Grandpa Harvey had a nice collection of hunting rifles and shotguns I admired in the corner of the tv room.

In high school, we were members of the NRA. Historian Heather Cox Richardson states that the National Rifle Association was founded in “New York in 1871, in part to improve the marksmanship skills of American citizens who might be called on to fight in another war, and in part to promote in America the British sport of elite shooting, complete with hefty cash prizes in newly organized tournaments. Just a decade after the Civil War, veterans jumped at the chance to hone their former skills. Rifle clubs sprang up across the nation.”[2]

I was a part of that until the Columbine shooting and the NRA President said, “From my cold dead hands.” I had to re-evaluate my stance. That wasn’t compassionate. That didn’t sound like Jesus. I thought that the NRA would have stood up for gun safety. Responsible gun ownership. Instead of being the spear tip of reform and safety, they invested in keeping things the same and easing restrictions. They are leading the way in avoiding having the conversation. We as a nation have been avoiding the work and the conversation. Here’s what happens when you do that…

When we don’t name the elephant in the room, the elephant controls the conversation. When there’s an 800 lb gorilla in the corner, everyone walks around the silverback. I was raised not to talk about religion or politics in polite company but look where that’s gotten us. We tried that and it’s not working. The trick is how to have the hard conversations and still remain at the table. It’s going to take all of us.

Here’s the elephant. Here’s the gorilla. “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Our refusal to address gun violence is deeply unpatriotic, since we are held in the grip of fear, we are not free, we are not able to become the nation we have the potential to be. Because we are held hostage by the large animal in the room.

We have the rights of the people to keep and bear arms… We do not have the well-regulated militia and we refuse to do anything about it.

Now I come from the 922. I have kith and kin in the redneck world. We are a stubborn lot. It’s why I get along with y’all Congregationalists, you can’t tell us what to do. My folks hate any conversation about regulation or gun control coming from any authority. But we also believe in gun control.

When my grandpa’s affair came to light, he got angry. He made threats against my grandma’s life and the life of my family. We made sure we took his guns away. When Kate’s grandpa Harvey started getting surly in his old age. As his health declined, he got meaner. The family took the guns out of the house. There was a community around both grandpas to look out and keep anything bad from happening. Yet what do we do with those who are isolated and without good family and friends to look out for them? What do we do with isolated males?

When I look at the shooters this year, almost all of them have been male. A staggering 98% of these crimes have been committed by men, according to The Violence Project, a nonpartisan research group that tracks U.S. mass shooting data dating back to 1966.[3]

This is the result of toxic masculinity. It’s bad for everyone. Men must be the strong silent types who provide for their families. There’s approved list of things that men can do. It’s like a t-shirt I saw at a fair recently. “Real men don’t ask for directions. Real men don’t read instructions. Real men don’t take selfies. Real men love their dogs.”

Look at these arms. Look at this wingspan! I have telescopic arms, who else in my family is able to take a selfie like I can?! How stupid is that shirt? We need room for men to express themselves. To cry. To laugh. To show the whole swath of emotions. It’s why Chuck Rihm’s Men’s Group that meets the 1st and 3rd Sunday in the new library is vital to the health of our congregation and nation. We are learning bring our whole selves to our world and society. We’ve put a lot of focus that girls and women can be anything they want. Yes! Absolutely. And so can our boys and men. And together, we can build a better society where all voices are heard and in leadership and together forging a more perfect union. All being the hands and feet of Christ in the world, together.

Together is the theme of Christ’s prayer today. The prayer “that they may be one as we are one… I in them and you in me” is needed in our day. Back in 1957, when the UCC was being formed they picked this line to be the motto. “That they all may be one.”

We can recall what our denomination was founded on. This old line for a new feeling. In 1957 we felt a new ecumenical sweep in our culture. People are going to line up for the UCC like they’re lining up for poodle skirts and Beatles records. But it was not meant to be. Just like the disciples we divided and scattered. And it’s easy to remain divided. The disciples could have labeled Peter a denier, Thomas a doubter… Mary Magdalene a woman and unworthy to testify to men. But that’s not what happened. Because of Mary’s preaching, we know of the resurrection. Thomas doubts, but is the first to say, “My Lord and my God.” Peter denies three times and is forgiven and restored three times with Jesus saying, “Feed my sheep.”

They came together again. It took all of them, and because of their work, we are here today. So come you deniers, you doubters, you abandoners, you bold and fearful. Yes the church is full of hypocrites, and there’s always room for more! Our ancestors in faith found new ways, but the new ways were rooted in some ancient traditions. Ancient traditions rediscovered and re-interpreted for the context that they were in.

We can come together too. It’s time for us to do the same. Things have changed, and we’re in a new era. We have smart phones. We have a 24-hour news cycle. We have massive divisions in culture and perspective. But it’s not all bad. Many if not all of us remember back when you wanted to spell something you had to walk to your bookcase and try to find the word in a physical book and spend 20 minutes only to learn that “Gnat” is spelled with a “G!” Now we have spell-check and predictive text.

With all that time saved, you’d think we’d be a less anxious, calmer, more grounded society. You’d think that, wouldn’t you? This doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems that the words of the psalmist are true! All who worship images are put to shame,
those who boast in idols—
worship him, all you gods!

The gun has become an idol. The isolated man who needs to be worshiped is an idol… and that’s who is shooting up our schools, grocery stores, and terrorizing us all. The phone and news cycle have become idols. Time to put them away and talk face-to-face.

We need to talk because our teachers are burning out at an alarming rate. We’ve asked too much of them. Do you keep a hammer in your desk to break a window so your classroom can escape? No? Do you plan in your place of employment or residence what do to in case of an active shooter? Just teachers? We’ve asked too much of them. And we’ve asked too much of our police force. We have given them too much to bear, and we need services to support them in their work, especially mental health services. We need a conversation about mental health. We need a conversation around what to do to have a well-regulated militia. I have a lot of thoughts on it. But it’s gonna take all of us.

It needs to start with each one of us. We can’t rely on the do-nothing congress who have proven they don’t care about our welfare. We have to start and we need all the voices at the table. Teachers, psychologists, child welfare advocates, gun owners, democrat, republican, apathetic, pastors, and humanists. Black, white, Latinx, Asian. Everyone. All of us! An answer to Christ’s prayer, that they all may be one! For those who aren’t religion how about another motto: e pluribus unum. The motto of our great nation, “Out of Many, One.”

It is time for the church to lead the way in this conversation. To set the table and host and to do the dishes afterward. We are not alone. We are not divided. We can be one. We must melt our idols down. To reconcile and make new. To love and serve others. To seek justice and resist evil. To proclaim Jesus crucified and risen our judge and our hope.

I don’t think Jesus is judging our inaction, our inability to name the large animal in the room, with too much kindness. God is with us… the question is… are we with God? I wish we could say that we are “one nation under God” but the poet Amanda Gorman insisted, “We are one nation under guns,” and she seems to be right.

I believe we start hyper-local. We set out a set of 18 chairs with three facing them out on our lawn as a memorial, like First Church UCC in Oberlin did. Maybe we invite RAW Tools, a group of blacksmiths who take guns used in violent crime and forge them into garden tools. Literally beating swords into plowshares. We must stand for peace, church. Love has been whispering and now it’s time to shout.

I wrote a prayer on my Facebook page on Tuesday. I quoted Leviticus 18:21: “You are not to sacrifice any of your children in the fire to Molech. Do not profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.”

Molech was a Canaanite god that people apparently sacrificed children to. Through gun fire, we appear to be following Molech and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. The violence in our culture is unsustainable. To honor our hallowed dead this Memorial Day, let us remember… then let us act so that we do not add to the list that is already too long.

Let us pray…

Holy One, we are in the land of Molech, that Canaanite god the scriptures warn us about. I wonder if it’s a god of hopelessness, cause I’m feeling that way.

Too many school names, and I’ve been fed up with this crap since Columbine in ’99. We’ve been doing nothing since then. No bans. No restrictions. No national conversation on how we live together.

Another community.

More lives taken.

More thoughts and prayers.

This is how we have decided to live.

Life only matters from conception until birth, then we’re on our own. It’s an exhausting way to live.

Meanwhile Molech’s acolytes are flooding a do-nothing congress with lobbying money. Nothing for mental health. Nothing for first responders. Teachers training students in lockdown drills. No sensible gun laws. No outrage from responsible gun owners, just silence, or worse… “come and take it.”

Lord, I know I’m just adding to the noise. “There I spoke up.” But it has solved nothing. What is the next right step, Holy One? What can a single person do?

Well, I’ve been praying about this for long enough. Time to have some conversations in the community. Time to talk mental health. Time for love of enemy. Time not to despair, for that’s Molech’s game. Despair. Hopelessness. Inaction.

I shall attempt to follow your example in Christ. To speak. To call out. To sit at the table. To pray. To act. To heal and comfort. To beat our guns into plowshares, our pistols into pruning hooks. To ask as you did in John 5:6… “Do you want to get well?” I guess that question is still on us… Another school shooting. 18 kids and 3 teacher. DO WE WANT TO GET WELL?!

I hope we do, oh Christ. I hope. Amen.


Further Resources

Dave Cullen, Columbine. An amazing read about all the events surrounding April 20, 1999. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbine_(book)

Sue Klebold’s TED Talk. Sue is the mother of Dylan Kelbold, one of the two shooters of Columbine: https://www.ted.com/talks/sue_klebold_my_son_was_a_columbine_shooter_this_is_my_story

Luke Lindon, Deny Yourself, Deny Yourself, sermon from February 25, 2018: https://www.uccmedina.org/sermons/deny-yourself/

Radiolab Presents: More Perfect- The Gun Show. February 23, 2018, https://radiolab.org/episodes/radiolab-presents-more-perfect-gun-show

Works Cited

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47380/in-flanders-fields

[2] Heather Cox Richardson, Facebook Post on May 24, 2022

[3] https://www.npr.org/2021/03/27/981803154/why-nearly-all-mass-shooters-are-men

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