Sermon Title: Orlando
Scripture: Luke 9:57-62
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Last Sunday in church, the unfolding situation in Orlando was mentioned and we prayed, but we did not know the full extent of the horror, and some people have told me since that they had no idea why we were praying for Orlando. They had heard nothing about it – yet. Now, we have heard maybe too much about it. I was glued to my laptop all afternoon last Sunday reading posts and watching video of the horrible scene. I finally had to make myself shut the laptop. Several times during this week, I have had to turn off the radio.
In the direct aftermath of the shooting mainly what I was feeling was anger. And it was coming from a self-centered place. I was thinking, we’ve been working for gay rights for decades and made many strides and still something like this happens? I thought, we have been working on interfaith relations for decades trying to cultivate bonds of mutual respect with people of other religions. And this is going to fuel more Islamaphobia. We have been working on celebrating diversity and acceptance of people of differing cultures and backgrounds, and this flies in the face of all of that. All those lovely gay, Latino people shot by a Middle Eastern Muslim claiming affiliation with ISIS. And we have been working on anti-violence, gun control, and peace for decades. And this violent episode just shows what has not been accomplished. My first feeling was anger that this one person was undermining all that we have been working for as a church for decades. One person. One place. One night. One heinous violent rage against gays and Latinos by a self-declared Islamic terrorist. That’s all it took to undermine our years of working for good. I was mad. Maybe you were, too.
For some this horror has brought on mostly sadness and fear: Much thought about the devastation to the families of those who are dead. The sense of loss of so many young, beautiful lives. And there is compassion for the first responders and all those involved in helping the victims and the families. And, of course, there is great suffering, unimaginable suffering, really, for those who have been directly involved in this terrible tragedy.
But I suspect that the level of anger one feels may be related to the level of involvement one has had in working for a just and peaceful world. It may be related to one’s devotion to a God of universal love. Maybe the more you have been involved in God’s work of justice the more angry you feel.
On Thursday evening I attended the Hospice event “Talking About Tragedy: A Community Conversation for Hope and Healing.” It was wonderful gathering and clearly needed by the community. The conversations dealt with issues around grieving and talking with children about death. That is what Hospice does beautifully and it is a wonderful service to the community. In the course of the event, the names of the patrons of Pulse who were killed were read, with the age, and a bell was tolled. You couldn’t help but cry for all those precious, promising lives ended. But it was clear this was Hospice, a secular organization, despite the responsive reading, the bell, and the ritual because there was one name that was not read. One name of a person killed that night that was not mentioned. One name of a person whom we believe, though he was clearly a tortured soul wracked by evil, was still a child of God, a human being, a vessel of the sacred. That name is Omar Mateen. As a church, we are followers of Jesus, who directs us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to turn the other cheek, to forgive. And so we, as Christians, must acknowledge and remember the life of Omar Mateen which also ended that night. And we must pray for healing for his family and loved ones not because we want to but because we must if we are to honor the sacredness of God and our own humanity.
Up on the window is the list that was posted at the Hospice event and because this is a Christian church, we will add the name of Omar Mateen, 29, to the list of those to be remembered. (I wrote the name and age on the list with the other names on the banner from the Hospice event.)
As the week went on and I was thinking about my anger, the lectionary scripture that we heard this morning spoke to me. Jesus is inviting people to follow him. They have excuses. They have reasons to postpone responding. They have other obligations and distractions which are also worthy. But from Jesus we get the message that this is so important, so urgent, it cannot be put off. Response is necessary immediately. The world is waiting. The field needs plowing – now. Yes, it does.
As we look at the horrible occurrence in Orlando we see issues around Islamphobia. We see issues around relations with Latinos; the discrimination and immigration problems. We see the surfacing of the ugly visage of homophobia. And we see yet another horrific display of gun violence. These glaring problems are all on full view.
And when you think about it, we, as a church, have been working on all of these things for years. We have been working to effect change in these areas. We have been actively involving ourselves in significant ways to address all of these issues. We have been on the job. With our hands to the plow. Not looking back. We have been doing what a church should be doing. We have been following Jesus. We have been addressing ourselves to the fundamental problems and issues of our society. We have been sharing the good news that another world is possible. In the story we heard today, Jesus tells one of his would-be followers: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the realm of God.” We have been working to create the realm of God here on earth, as a church of Jesus Christ, because that’s what Jesus calls us to do. We have been working in just the areas where the church should be working in the world today. Orlando shows us glaring needs and we have been on it, addressing those needs, for years. We have been right on target.
While other expressions of Christianity may be obsessing over getting people on board with the band, or trying to protect the right to wear a cross at work, or arguing over what color to paint the bathroom, or – worse yet – declaring homosexuality a sin, working to protect the second amendment, and decrying Islam as the work of the devil, we have been behind the plow, not looking back: Working for full inclusion of people who are sexual minorities, working for acceptance of the legitimacy of other faith traditions and cultures, and working against violence in all its forms, including gun violence and war.
This church became a Just Peace Church in 1988. The church declared itself an Open and Affirming Church in 1998. And it was the Sunday after 9/11 that the tradition was begun of starting every Sunday service by renewing our commitment to peace using readings from many sources including the many different religious traditions of the world. We have been working on the problems that need addressing for years. We have been doing what we are supposed to be doing as a church of Jesus Christ. Orlando shows us that we are on the right track and that there is more for us to do.
This Father’s Day, the sermon was going to be about fathers and parents passing on more than DNA, money, and maybe sports team loyalty to their children. It was going to be about the need to pass on wisdom from generation to generation. A deep knowing about the world, yourself, humanity, and creation. We are part of a big, living whole, and we need to know our place and respect the whole enterprise. Wisdom, regardless of our religious roots or lack there of, regardless of our political inclinations, regardless of our economic status or cultural background, wisdom teaches mutual respect and compassion.
I mentioned earlier that in the direct aftermath of Orlando, I felt angry. This one shooter was undoing all the good that I/we had been working on for years. Maybe even for a life time. Then I thought of my parents. They, too, worked to end war and gun violence. They worked for equality for all people. They worked against racism and sexism and homophobia, advocating for ordination of gay people in the UCC back in the 1960’s. They were working on all these things for much of their life time.
And their parents? My father’s father died in 1927 when my dad was 5, so he never really knew his father. And his mother was overcome with struggling to raise two small children on her own. But when my dad was in seminary, for his thesis he wrote a biography of his father. He looked into the few documents that the family had and into other historical records. He discovered that his father was a very prominent man, both in Italy, his home country, and in the US, his chosen home. He came here as a young man under the auspices of the YMCA. It was an intercultural exchange with an educational component. Here, he studied for the ministry and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He founded the Church of the Ascension on 125th St. in Harlem. He was very active in providing help and services to immigrants who were coming in droves to New York in the early 20th century. He helped set up programs for the newcomers to learn English, to get jobs, and to adjust to life in this country so that they could be productive citizens. And these services were not only offered to Italian immigrants, they were offered to all immigrants from every country. He was also the editor of a daily Italian language newspaper and a speech writer for Fiorello LaGuardia. So, here my father, as a young seminarian, discovered that his father had been a pastor with a heart for what we would today call social action or social justice. His father was committed to the church being engaged in the world as an agent of transformation, working for justice and equality. I think that finding this out about his father spurred my father to a similar commitment which was then passed on to my brother and me. And we, with our spouses, have tried to impart this wisdom to our children.
The brightest spot for me around the Orlando event was the reaction of our 20 year old son, Malcolm. He was livid. Furious that anyone would do this to gay people. Furious that Latinos were targeted. Furious that it would fuel more Islamaphobia. Furious at religion for fostering these hateful ideas. Furious that it would generate support for Donald Trump. And, then he said, “And I am most upset about the violence, Mom. I just cannot tolerate violence in any form.” His grandfathers and his father are smiling.
So, while we are awash with anger, grief, fear, or even numbness, take heart. As a church, as an expression of Christianity, as followers of Jesus, we are addressing ourselves to the needs of the world. We are spreading the good news of universal love, no exceptions. We are sharing the vision of a world where all have a sense of acceptance, worth, belonging, and purpose. We have our hand to the plow, the row ahead is long, and we are not looking back. Amen.