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Las Vegas: What can we do?

    Oct 08, 2017

    Passage: Matthew 21:33-46

    Preacher: Rob Donehue

    Detail:

    Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, Year A
    October 8th, 2017
    St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

    Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20          Philippians 3:4b-14 Matthew 21:33-46

    As a fore warning, I’m going to be talking today about the violence that happened a week ago in Las Vegas. I know this might make everyone uncomfortable, so I’ll go ahead and say that I’m not going to be using the pulpit to wade into the political debate about gun control. For one, I’m not an expert on either politics or firearms. But I’m also of the opinion that most of us have already seen more than enough political grandstanding on the issue and might have come here this morning because we want to hear a bit of good news…if there is any to be found. What I want to talk about, however, does have to do with how the church can, and I think should, respond to an issue that bears directly on the well being of this nation. 

    What I want to say begins with the words from the hymn we just sang. If you’d like to look again at the words, the hymn number is 617. The hymn is entitled ‘Eternal ruler of the ceaseless round,’ and the words to it were written by the Rev. John W. Chadwick in 1864. As I’m sure you all know, in 1864, the Civil War was still being fought. Chadwick knew the evils of the war, which is why he spoke of God guiding the nations from the “night profound into the glory of the perfect day.” The “night profound” was the violence and death that had gripped the country in a conflict whose end, when the hymn was written, was not yet in sight. The words of the hymn, then, can be seen as a prayer for deliverance from the horrors of violence and war and an expression of hope that God can bring us out of deepest darkness and “into the glory of the perfect day.”

    And the prayer rests on a number of assumptions. The assumptions are spelled out in the second verse of the hymn, and it’s these assumptions that I want us to dwell on for a moment because I think they speak to why the message of the gospel can offer us some solace - some good news - even in the face of violence and death. The words of the second verse are as follows:   

    “We would be one in hatred of all wrong, 

    one in the love of all things sweet and fair, 

    one with the joy that breaketh into song, 

    one with the grief that trembleth into prayer; 

    one in the power that makes thy children free 

    to follow truth, and thus to follow thee.”

    The assumption that the hymn makes is that we would be one, and if you stop to think about it, it’s a bold claim, especially to have made during a time of civil war. I hasten to add that it’s a bold claim even now, when the divisions in this nation are so readily apparent. But the words speak to the hope that the church might be a place of unity, and that its message - and its example - of unity might provide a ray of light in world sunk in darkness.

    Here’s where I want to draw attention to the fact that not everyone in this church is in 100% agreement with everyone else about everything. You all probably already know that, but it’s an important thing to remember. Because it can be tempting to think that the church is only a place of refuge from differences instead of a place where even our disagreements can find common ground and, by God’s grace, be reconciled. I’ll grant you that I’m making my own assumption here, but I truly believe that if you are here today, then by virtue of the fact that you walked through the doors of this chapel, you were willing to set aside your differences in favor of recognizing the truth that we are all one in the eyes of God and that we all would be “one in the love of all things sweet and fair.” The alternative is to think that the church is just another political action committee and that in order to belong to a church you have to be on board with the current political views of everyone else in the congregation. And that is tantamount to saying that we don’t actually want the world to be reconciled under the banner of the Prince of Peace; that we’d rather the church be a place where we come to hear more of the same partisan jargon that we get so much of during the week. But, to use the imagery of Jesus’ parable, I think that such an approach to church would be like trying to cast out the true owner and claim the inheritance of the vineyard for ourselves. 

    So far, I’ve been speaking in general terms about what the church should be, but I’d now like to make a specific suggestion in light of what happened in Las Vegas - a suggestion that I know will probably make some of us uncomfortable. 

    I want to challenge us all to at least TRY to have a conversation about what happened in Las Vegas…with a fellow believer who does not share our political views. For those who want to see stricter gun control legislation, try to find someone who disagrees with you, have a face to face conversation with them, and hear what they have to say - really hear what they have to say - without thinking that they don’t care about the victims of gun violence. Instead, begin from the assumption that you both feel the “grief that trembleth unto prayer” and that they are just as disgusted and grieved by what happened in Las Vegas as you are. You may still disagree at the end of the conversation, but if you can both agree that violence of any kind is not God’s will, then at least you will have touched on the idea that, through the grace of God, reconciliation and unity are possible. 

    Or, if you think that no degree of legislation is going to solve the problem of violence, then find someone who disagrees with you, have a face to face conversation with them, and hear what they have to say - really hear what they have to say - without thinking that they all they want to do is impose tyrannical laws on everyone. Instead, begin from the assumption that you both “would be one in hatred of all wrong,” and that they want the same peace and security that you do. And even if you disagree at the end, if you can both agree that tyranny and violence are not God’s will, then you will have touched on the idea that, through the grace of God, reconciliation and unity are possible.

    I know that this might sound like risky business, and I’ll grant you that it is. But I’m not arbitrarily seeking to cause a stir among members. It’s just that I believe that if we, as followers of Jesus, cannot have these kinds of conversations with each other, peacefully and with some hope of reconciliation and unity, then there’s little chance that we’ll be able to have them with others. And I’m of the opinion that the solution to the problem of gun violence in this country - whether it be Las Vegas, or Orlando, or Newtown, or Columbine - starts right here. It starts with us. It starts with our own ability to be at peace with one another without thinking that a brother or sister needs to be condemned for their views. It starts with communities of people who are committed to the idea that true unity is possible, that true peace is possible, that truth is possible. Is that going to prevent all violence and all evil? No. Is it going to solve the issues of the day? In the short term, probably not. But in the face of continuing violence, we can either close ranks and say that anyone who doesn’t agree with us is just part of the problem, or commit more fully to our Lord’s desire for our unity and actively seek out ways to make that unity a reality in our lives. My hope is that this church can continue to be a place where we can all strive for that kind of unity and be that ray of light in a world so full of darkness. God save us.