A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
November 12, 2017
Lections: Wisdom 6:12-20; Matthew 25:1-13
A friend stopped by last week. He hadn’t been doing well, and he had gone to India for a few weeks to pull himself together. He enjoyed a wonderful time, and experienced all sorts of feelings he had thought were gone for good. Then he came home. And guess what? His re-entry was predictably difficult. Most notably, the news: He wonders, how to tune it out? Is it even possible?
This might be a good time for us to ask ourselves the same question. Today’s parable has a pedestrian stress: the wedding details were familiar in their context. In the mix of shifting identities that the language of parables makes possible, we can read ourselves into the role of bridesmaids, for we are responsible for preparing the bride – that is, the church – to meet the bridegroom, Jesus the Christ. This is a responsibility that we begin to assume at an early age – and grow more fully into as we move through all our days. The Wisdom of Salomon, found in the Septuagint, is intended as a guide for “those in authority” but has many practical applications for growing “on the Way” in the conditions and circumstances of everyday life.
This is my seventh Sunday as your pastor. The night following our first Sunday together, 58 people were killed and 546 injured by one man shooting from a hotel looking out on the Route 91 Harvest music festival on Nevada’s Las Vegas strip. On the last day of the month, in lower Manhattan, on a bike path running along the Hudson River, where I have often enjoyed walking, 8 persons were killed and 12 wounded by a man driving a pickup truck down the bike path. And last Sunday, not long after we ended our worship here in Vermont, a gunman opened fire at a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Sunday, killing 26.
These are horrific events, and we are becoming more and more accepting of them. One hardly knows what to do. As I said after the Las Vegas shooting, it is not enough to view these events – and those that they resemble – as the expression of a single individual’s derangement; nihilism weaves through American society and the culture of much of our world. The bike path attack fits in with an international wave of similiar attacks. Yet last week we heard the United States President, from across the Pacific, express himself. He said the most recent shooting was a “mental health problem at the highest level,” and the gunman was a “deranged” individual. “This isn’t a guns situation, we could go into it, but it’s a little soon to go into it,” said the President.
Ok. The President’s analysis is different from mine, but should we leave it at that? I would argue it is a “guns situation” because the church attack is an act of guns violence; and, as was the case in Las Vegas, guns violence is uniquely capable of quickly and indiscriminately killing large numbers of people . This type of violence resembles gravitation; it is like the distortion of the space-time continuum that generates celestial bodies, except the bodies in a shooting attack are produced by the distortion of the fabric of society. In fact, there is no such thing as a “deranged” individual; instead, there is the reality of the “deranged” society, which is exactly what you and I inhabit.
Two comments made last week by “those in authority” support this thesis. First, on FOX News in answer to the question, “What do we say to each other about this?” the governor of Texas said, “Remember, even though we’re facing these severe tragedies, whether it be what happened in Sutherland Springs, or what happened in Las Vegas, or what happened in New York last week… we have acts of evil taking place, and because they are close in time to us right now, we think this is something heavy right now.” The Governor went on to clarify his comforting remarks: last week’s church shooting, he said, needs to be “put in the context of history” and compared with “what happened with Hitler during the horrific events during that era.” Apparently, the Governor is advocating for a threshold approach to lawless deeds, and 26 deaths in one shooting by one gunman doesn’t meet his threshold for taking responsible action.
Most disturbing, to me however, were the comments made by the House Majority Leader, who tweeted that the Texas shooting victims “need our prayers,” arguing “prayer works.” The next day he defended his tweet. “The right thing to do,” he said, “is to pray in moments like this, because you know what? Prayer works.” In the face of such effrontery, I feel violated. The highest ranked legislator in this country, the person with the most power to do something about gun violence, shirks his responsibility once again by laying claim to righteousness. In doing so, he contended, “People who do not have faith don’t understand faith” and labelled people who disagreed with him as “the far secular left.” Is this how folks like you and me, struggling as we must to understand and practice the life of discipleship, are being marginalized? As lefties and secularists?
In answer to the Speaker, I would say this: according to the Brady Commission, 94 people die every day on average in America from gunshot wounds. Another 222 people are shot but survive. In one year on average, 114, 994 persons in America are shot in murders, assaults, suicides and attempted suicides, unintentional shootings, or by police, including 17,012 children and teens. If the prayers of the faithful and those who suffer were going to end gun violence, prayer would have already worked. It’s not too soon to know this.
The actions of a person of faith are consistent with the proclamation of the Law and the Prophets and the Gospels. Each of these three wellsprings of faith attests to the fact that the powerful are responsible for the welfare of the defenseless, and laws must be responsive to the needs of society. Where there is a distortion in the fabric of society, laws must work to counter – not ignore – that distortion. The earth and all its creatures groan for an end to cultures of violence and bloodshed, and in America, the House Speaker needs to pass effective legislation – contrary to the lobbying efforts of the NRA and gun manufacturers – to address gun violence. And if instead he talks about faith, the church must talk about bump fire stocks.
The deeper we go into our faith, and the language of its parables, the more we are changed. Our discernment sharpens, and our hearts open; we learn to wield the two-edged sword of Wisdom. Righteousness has not been established on earth, and we see this for ourselves; on earth, there is no justice and no peace. Faith destroys illusion; faith does not weave illusion into platitudes. The Cross stands above it all, and the Cross our teacher was executed on was a common instrument of torture in 1st century Jerusalem. The night before he hung on the cross, Jesus prayed in the Garden, and we slept. Illusion is darkness, not light, and the oil for our lamps is in short supply.
The corruption of the world leaves the church yet to be defined. We are the bridesmaids, and we are counted in the church, but we are as bridesmaids who have seen bride and bridegroom only dimly. It is well for us that there is a shout from the streets to bring us to! The marriage of Christ to his church is consummated at the messianic Banquet, when we achieve Wisdom’s stature, and please the Bridegroom. Our way – the way of the Cross – sets foolishness apart from truth, and we have heard how the Bridegroom, come only now from the Temple, was unsparing with the hypocrites.