No More of This! A sermon for Palm Sunday on Gun Violence

No More of This!

Palm Sunday March 24, 2013

Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church

Luke 19: 28-40 & Luke 22: 47-53

This sermon was given for Palm Sunday but also because our church hosted a Special Meeting of Elizabeth Presbytery on the same day in the afternoon to address the issue of gun violence and work to seek ways forward.  We watched the new documentary Trigger: The Ripple Effects of Gun Violence and were led by former GA Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase at this meeting.  Over 70 people attended the meeting in the afternoon, from which we intend to build a movement to handle issues of gun violence in our communities throughout our Presbytery.

2059[1].

That is the number of US troops who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.

Precious lives lost.

2923[2].

That is the number of people in our country who have been killed by gun violence since December 14, 2012 when in Newtown, CT 20 children were massacred in their classroom.[3]

51 of them have been children.

147 of them have been teenagers.

Precious lives lost.

In just a little over three months more people have died at the hand of a gun in our country than the number of US troops, people who signed up to go into battle—who have died on the battlefield in 12 years in Afghanistan.

It is statically safer to be in Afghanistan as a U.S. citizen than on the streets, shopping malls, houses of worship, classrooms or homes of our country.

Jesus said:  “I came that you might have life, and have it in abundance.” (John 10)

Is this what abundant life looks like?

A few weeks ago I took my daughter to go see a movie she had been pleading with me to see.   She wanted to see it not at home when it came out on On Demand TV or DVD which is what we’ve been doing lately.  She wanted to see it in the movie theater.  I must tell you I have been avoiding movie theaters.  I no longer feel safe in them.  And I do not want my child anywhere near them.   I am afraid of being in public places like that, where it is dark and you do not know who is next to you.   But she wanted to go so I took her.   I made sure we sat near the back, close to the door, at an aisle seat so no one would trap us.  Maybe you think I’m neurotic, but I just do not feel safe in places like this anymore.  As the movie started I began using the light of the projector to watch the people around me, sizing them up.   I felt on edge during most of the movie. I watched it, but I hope Sofia never saw my fear or noticed that I paid more attention to the people around me than the movie I’d paid to see that afternoon with her.

Is this what abundant life looks like?

What are we meant to be doing when we live in a social situation like the one that we are a part of, where violence is an everyday given, where many of us are fearful of leaving our homes, or going into public places, or worry when we send our precious children off to school?   How do we get over the feeling of powerlessness?  How do we get over the denial we live in?   What are we supposed to do?  And most importantly what is our highest calling in our lives—our calling as people who follow Jesus?

What is abundant life?

It has always been this way, by the way.   Since the inception of our country, in all the wars we have fought in from the Revolutionary War up until today we have lost just under 1.2 million US soldiers on the battlefield.  This is for all wars we have been engaged in since and including the Revolutionary War. We haven’t had statistics that whole time on gun violence deaths among civilians within the borders of our country but good ones have been kept since 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated.   And just in that time span, 50 years, a little over 1.3 million civilians inside the borders of our country have died at the hands of a gun.[4]  So what has happened in the last three months isn’t an anomaly.  It’s just the way things have been.  It is the sin-filled state of violence in the culture we live in.

I know I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you.  So let’s put those aside for a moment and just think about Jesus.

Today begins Holy Week, the most important week for us each year as people who follow Jesus.  Why would I start Holy Week with such depressing statistics and such a depressing topic?   But isn’t Holy Week violent?  Isn’t Holy Week full of pain?  A man, Jesus arrested and snatched away from his friends.  Found guilty on trumped up charges by a vicious dictator.  Mocked, made to carry the instrument that will kill him through the streets of a town to the top of a hill while bleeding from the torture he endured.  And then nailed on a cross to die a horrible death.  The end of the week is Good—the Resurrection part.  But the rest of the week is about as low as you can sink into human depravity.  What does Holy Week have to teach us about violence?

Years ago I heard a sermon from Rev. John Dear at Drew Seminary, just up the road here in Madison, NJ.   I have always loved John’s writings and books.  He led a retreat I attended just a few weeks after September 11th in 2001 when I myself was pretty tired and exhausted and to be honest, pretty blood-thirsty and wanting revenge.   John is a longtime peace activist and that weekend back in 2001 he gathered up a group of pastors in a very uncertain time in our country’s history and reminded us with so much love and gentleness of the central message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Peace.  Nonviolence.   I needed that reminder back in 2001 because I was just a few months into ministry and I had already forgotten it.   A few years ago John opened up for me this passage in Luke 22 we heard this morning.  Jesus in the Garden, just before he is about to be arrested.  Imagine if that was you.  You were with your friends and a mob comes and wants to arrest you.  You know what will happen if they take you away.  You will be put to death.  Don’t you want to do everything in your power to stop it?  Don’t your friends?   And that’s exactly what Peter does.  He grabs one of the Roman soldiers’ swords and with one swipe cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest.  It’s a warning shot across the bow.  Peter wants the mob to know that he isn’t going to give up Jesus without a fight.  And he wants them to remember that he is pretty fast and very good with a sword.  In essence Peter is saying, “You do not want to mess with me.”   Jesus doesn’t say thank you.  He doesn’t do what most of us would do, which is to get behind Peter.  That’s what I would have done.  I would have been right behind Peter in a second.  Instead he yells at him, “Enough! No more of this!”  And then Jesus reaches out his hand and heals the person who is there to arrest him and take him to his torture-filled death.

John Dear in his sermon in Madison a few years ago said that this encounter in the Garden was Jesus’ final protest against violence.  He was saying to his disciples who he knew he was about to leave—and leave them in charge of growing his movement (another scary thought!) that violence was never the answer—even when it’s a mob out to get you.  Jesus was saying, “Enough of this.”  “No more violence.  It is totally, 100% unacceptable to me.  I will not tolerate it.  I will work against it, even if it is to my detriment.  I will not participate in it.  I will not subscribe to violence in anyway way.  Enough.  Enough.”

This is the story about Jesus that we start Holy Week with.  It goes alongside the story today of Jesus riding into Jerusalem, the city that will be his undoing.  The city of his death.

My question today for all of us on Palm Sunday is this:  How do we want to greet Jesus this Holy Week, this Palm Sunday?  We say that we believe in the Resurrection, that we believe that Jesus is coming back.  So then, how do we want to welcome him into our hearts on this most holy of weeks in our year as people who follow him?   Do we want to greet him like everything else in our culture does?  Violently?  Or do we want to welcome him in a new way?  Do we want to prepare for him communities to come into that are the way he’d want them to be?  Peaceful?  Nonviolent?

I know which way I want to greet Jesus this week.  But I also know that I need a lot of help doing that and living in that way.  I remember how I was in October of 2001.  I was like Peter.  I wanted violence and revenge.  But when I got away for a weekend on a retreat with friends and a gentle pastor named John Dear who ministered to us and lead us I was reminded of who I was and Whom I followed.

I believe that we all need this.  We all need communities and friendships that help us follow the nonviolent, peaceful Jesus.  Because everything around us invites us to follow something very different.   And it is hard to say no or even realize most of the time just how low we have sunk into the total depravity of violence.  This is why our meeting together this afternoon to talk about just one facet of the violence that does terrible damage to God’s beloved people and to our souls is so important.  We cannot follow Jesus alone.  We cannot be peaceful and nonviolent like Jesus alone.  It is simply impossible!   We need communities and people around us to help us.  And we need to be there to help others.  The conversation we will have this afternoon about guns is just a beginning but it is an important one because we will gather together and be church in an important and a profound way.  And that will be an acceptable worship of Jesus whose death that we remember this week has saved us and offered us not just New Life but the chance to create abundant life in the communities he has called us to be a part of.

It’s Palm Sunday.  The palm fronds are in your hands.   Let us wave them for our Savior who has called us into new life and transformation, even in the midst of a such a violent time.

Let us have the courage to wave our palms for all to see.

Amen.


[1] US Dept. of Defense live statistics:  http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf

[3] All numbers of gun statistic deaths are of 9PM EST March 23, 2013.

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