Category Archives: Gun Violence
4 August 2019
First Presbyterian Church of Whitesone
The Rev. Mark Koenig
This sermon was put together on the morning of Sunday, August 4, 2019 between about 8:00 AM and 11:00 AM. The scripture planned for the day was Luke 12:13-21. It is referenced in the sermon but does not serve as the text in the traditional sense. Beginning with the quote by the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson the material is adapted from a sermon originally preached in February, 2019. Apologies if I quoted anyone without attribution. What follows is a reconstruction based on the notes taken into the pulpit.
When Wiley likes one of my sermons, he shakes my hand and says, “You stuck the landing on that one, Mark.” I have a vision of a graceful female gymnast, both feet hitting the floor. Arms extended. Her smile filling the auditorium.
I like that. But I don’t usually think of myself as particularly graceful.
Today, I have a feeling the sermon may more closely resemble my breaking the springboard for the vault, knocking over the pommel horse, staggering away, hitting my head on the rings, walking into the supports for the parallel bar and bringing it down, careening into the balance bar, falling across it, and face-planting into the mat.
I am improvising today. At the church retreat, Leslie Mott talked about the importance of improvisation both in life and in ministry. It involves taking the situation we are given, saying yes, and making things work.
One form of improvisation for clergy involves being able to adapt to circumstances in the life of the congregation, the community, the nation and the world as we preach and lead worship.
I have done that before. Many times.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table in Iowa on a Sunday morning, cutting paper apart with scissors. Removing passages. Changing the location of paragraphs. Furiously scribbling notes and adding them. Pasting things together.
Sean was about two at the time. His eyes got bigger and bigger. Finally, he asked, “What is daddy doing?”
“Just rewriting his sermon,” Tricia assured him.
I have often rewritten sermons on Sunday mornings in response to circumstances.
Never before today have I done so in the back of an Uber.
Never before today do I remember a Sunday when there were two mass shootings within 24 hours of when I preached.
Reports from last night are that at least twenty people died in a Walmart in El Paso. The shooter may have been motivated by racial hatred. An Internet post that is believed to be his talked about hating people of color and the United States being “invaded”. He made his way from the Dallas area to El Paso – a diverse town that straddles the border and so has many Mexican-American residents and is often visited by people from Mexico. At least three of the people killed have been identified as Mexican citizens who had crossed from Ciudad Juárez to shop.
This morning’s report says that at least 9 people died in Dayton. The shooting took place in a popular nightclub area late last night. Details are only now emerging.
Last weekend 4 people died in a shooting in Gilroy, California. One person was killed and 11 wounded at a celebration in Brooklyn.
Groups that monitor gun violence note that at least 7 other mass shootings occurred since we last gathered in this sanctuary.
Those are shootings where at least 4 people are shot in the same incident. It does not include shootings of individuals. It does not include individual deaths by suicide.
My heart is shattered. My mind reels. I grieve. I grieve for those who died. For those who are recovering from wounds. For families blown apart in an instant. For first responders. For witnesses. For medical personnel. I grieve to hear reports that people in El Paso did not go to medical care or to family reunion centers because they feared that ICE might be there. I pray those reports are inaccurate, but I fear they are true. And I grieve for the evil that is revealed if they are.
I rage at a world where the obscenity of mass shootings happens again. And again. And again. One of the most painful memes I saw on Facebook either this weekend read along the lines of: “I will pray for those killed in today’s shooting. The most painful word in that sentence is today’s.”
My grief almost breaks me. My rage threatens to consume me. But I will not fail. I will not falter. I will never give up. I will rise again. I rise again because of my faith in Jesus Christ. On Christ, by Christ, with Christ, in Christ I stand.
Many words have already been written about the shootings. More will come.
Among the words that speak to me are these attributed to Representative Veronica Escober, congresswoman from El Paso. She says: “We have a hate epidemic in this country.”
I agree with that, but I would add, we have a racism epidemic in this country. We have a white supremacy epidemic in this country. We have a white nationalist epidemic in this country. Again and again, those who commit mass shootings are not people of color. They are not Muslims. They are not migrants whose status is out of order. They are white men. If our country wants to ban people to make us safer, we might consider banning people who look like me.
We have a hate, racist, white supremacist epidemic in this country.
But I interrupted Congresswoman Escobar and I need to allow her to reclaim her time. She goes on to say: “We respond with abundance and love.”
We will love. That was the end of my original sermon for this morning. I talked about the rich farmer in Jesus’ parable who was motivated by greed and self-interest and fear. Those were his economic principles. Jesus, as he tells the parable, presents an alternative economic vision.
When people speak about money and things economic, the phrase “the bottom line” often appears in the presentations and conversations. The bottom line: “the primary or most important point.”[i] The bottom line in Christ’s eternal economy is that God loves us. God loves us and will never let us go.
In response to the hate and evil of mass shootings, I will stand with Jesus. I will love.
I will think and I will pray.
But if we think with the insight and wisdom of the greatest sages of the ages, but fail to act in love, we are noisy gongs.
If we pray with the fervency of Mary (a member of the congregation who has a profound gift for prayer that she has nurtured through her 97 years) and other spiritual masters, but fail to act in love we are clanging cymbals.
Love is a verb. It moves. It acts. It responds. It disrupts. It challenges. It changes.
It is time for love. Personally, and publicly. It is time for justice. Love in action in public is justice.
What might we do?
We might contact our elected representatives. We might ask them to work for responsible gun policies. They may reply that the President will not change things. Then we can remind our elected officials that they work for us. And we want them to work to end gun violence. I will do that.
We might research candidates for elected office. Who is receiving contributions from the gun lobby? Perhaps we might vote to someone who does not. Perhaps we might contribute to someone who does not. Perhaps we might volunteer for someone who does not. I will do that.
We might contribute to organizations working for responsible gun policies. There are many. I will research them and determine where I would like to make a small gift. If the Session approves, the list can be shared in The Lift.
We might witness. Perhaps when I return we can organize a vigil.
We can welcome neighbors and build community across the wondrous diversity that God creates. We can interrupt racism and disrupt white supremacy and challenge white nationalism. I will try to do better.
We can examine our culture and the role violence plays in it. The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of our General Assembly calls us to examine our culture. He notes that we live in a culture of violence. Violence has become a form of entertainment that ranges from
“toy guns and holsters, to movies and cartoons, to video games that simulate warfare and deaths by automatic weapons, including blood splatter. Violence on television provides actual blueprints for killing another person. And daily we watch the glamorizing of murder on our mobile devices and hear lyrics to songs declaring that there is something noble about killing another human being, including shooting the police.”[ii]
I was driving in Louisville a few years back with NPR on the radio. They were interviewing Dr. Cornell West about gun violence. In my head I was his one-person amen corner. “That’s right. Preach.”
Then he said something to the effect that, “Violence has become our new pornography. It entertains us. Stimulates us. Excites us.”
My video collection flashed before my eyes. And my amen corner said, “Slow down there, Dr. West. Now you are meddling.”
Preachers usually preach to ourselves when we are honest about what we are doing. I will consider what I use to entertain myself.
Mass shootings. Death by gun violence. This is a far cry from the Biblical vision of each person made in the image of God. Of each person beloved by God. Of the call of Jesus to transform a culture of violence to a culture of love and justice.
Followers of Jesus have sought to live according to his teachings both before the crucifixion and after the resurrection.
Reflecting on the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not murder,”[iii] John Calvin notes that each human life is loved and redeemed by God, and therefore, worthy of our love. He understands that in in this commandment violence and injustice, and every kind of harm from which our neighbor’s body suffers, is prohibited.[iv] Pro-actively, the commandment calls us to act to care for one another, protect each other, and do justice.
Those are some suggestions for responding to gun violence. They may prove helpful. They may not. Other ideas will be needed. The work will prove difficult. There is no other word for it. But it is work we as followers of Jesus must do. None of us can do it all. But everyone can do something.
To say nothing can be done is irresponsible. It breaks faith with those who have lost their lives to gun violence and those who wounded by gun violence and those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. It breaks faith with our ancestors famous and humble who faced situations of obscene injustice that violated God’s precious, beloved children and said, yes, yes, there is something I can do. It breaks faith with God who does new things. May we keep faith. May we love. May we work for justice. This day. And every day.
[ii] The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, https://www.presbypeacefellowship.org/resources/sermon-the-difference-a-gun-can-make/
[iii] Exodus 19:13
[iv] Gun Violence and Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call; approved by the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); developed by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP); published in 2011; p. 9.
I Corinthians 13
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
March 17, 2019
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig
What comes to mind when you hear the word pie?
Perhaps your favorite pizza?
For me, the word takes me back to childhood. My mother made better pies than cakes. We celebrated my birthday with chocolate cream. My brother chose Boston Cream. My sister blueberry. At least one of us made a semi-healthy choice.
Of course, mathematicians may think not of pie but of pi. Pi. A number that designates the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.
In Greek, perimetros means circumference. Staying in Greek, Pi is the first letter in perimetros. Because of the influence of Greeks on early European mathematics, pi became the word used to describe this number.[i]
To put pi in numbers, one begins with 3.14. At some point in time, March 14 became known as Pi day. People share bad jokes. Bakeries and restaurants offer deals on pie.
Pi Day came last Thursday. I ate no pie. But I received reminders that Pi is both infinite.
Pi is infinite. It’s decimal representation never ends. It starts 3.14 and then goes on forever. Mathematician Emma Haruka Iwao recently computed over 31 trillion digits of pi. In an interview with the BBC, she said, “There is no end with pi, I would love to try with more digits.”[ii]
Reflecting on the infinite nature of Pi, reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend, Joanne Westin. Her teen-age daughter had died in a drowning accident. We talked of Jennifer and we talked of loss. And Joanne observed that, “Grief is infinite.” After a pause, she added, “And so is love.”
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[iii] Love is infinite, because God is love.
I know that. I believe that. I preach that. But I need to hear that this week. This heart-wrenching week.
In Louisville, I worked with the Rev. Robina Winbush, our church’s staff person for ecumenical and interfaith relations. On Tuesday morning, returning from a visit with our church partners in the Middle East, Robina stepped from the plane and into the everlasting, ever-loving arms of God. As she deplaned at JFK, Robina collapsed. Airline personnel and EMTs could not revive her.
Tuesday evening, Mike Miller, the acting chief financial officer for the national church in Louisville, died of a massive heart attack.
Wednesday evening, my phone buzzed with a text from Rex bearing the heartbreaking news that Byron Vasquez had died. A gentle, good man gone too soon, too young. Byron made a commitment and gave of himself to the United States – where too often the sin and hate of white supremacy “othered” him as it does to brown and black people. Labelling him as “less than” and telling him to return to his country.
On Friday, New Zealand time, white supremacy struck in New Zealand. A man who posted a statement rooted in white supremacy and white nationalism, opened fire in the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid Mosque in Christchurch. As the Muslim community gathered to worship. As they prayed. At least 50 people died; many others were wounded. In the words of the New Zealand Herald:
“They are fathers, mothers, grandparents, daughters and sons.
They are refugees, immigrants and New-Zealand born.
They are Kiwis.”[iv]
Around the world, white supremacists distort the message of the Gospel in a effort to justify their heinous and heretical beliefs. The good news of Jesus Christ diametrically opposes any idea of supremacy. The idea that one group of people is supreme in any way violates everything that Jesus taught. It is a sin. Jesus calls us to love. To love God. To love neighbors. To love neighbors who love us. To love neighbors who do not love us. To love neighbors who have many similarities to us. To love neighbors from whom we differ in every imaginable way. Love, not hate, not division, not superiority, not supremacy. Love is the message of the Gospel.
Friday evening, my phone buzzed. Rex and Camilla’s friend Eugene Lloyd had died. Another good man gone.
A heart-wrenching week.
Our passage from Luke shows Jesus lamenting Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”[v]
Jesus goes on to express a desire to gather the city and its people in a protective embrace of love. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”[vi] His lament continues as he acknowledges that will not happen. “You were not willing.”[vii]
Of course, we know the rest of the story. Jesus will proceed to Jerusalem. He will endure betrayal and denial. He will experience torture and execution. And three days later God will raise him from the dead. God’s infinite love will have the final word.
Valerie Kaur is a human rights activist and a member of the Sikh faith who knows something about love. She notes that the shooting in New Zealand transports her back to Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In 2012, a white supremacist opened fire at the gurdwara – the Sikh place of worship and gathering. The community was preparing their communal meal known as a langar. Kaur writes: “I see the blood of Sikh uncles & aunties in the prayer hall. What helped me breathe then… and now: love. Love as sustained practical care. Love as courage.”[viii]
At the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid Mosque, love as both courage and practical care were displayed. The first responders. People on the streets. I saw an interview with a woman who provided care to a wounded man. When told she was a hero, the woman responded. “I am not. I did what needed to be done.” That’s not a bad definition of a hero. It is certainly a definition of love.
Ava Parvin and her husband, Farid, left Bangladesh and settled in New Zealand in 1994. Farid grew ill and had to use a wheelchair. On Friday, as the terrorist aimed at Farid, Ara jumped in front of the bullets. He lived. She died. Love never ends.
Forty years ago, Haji Daoud Nabi fled war in his native Afghanistan and resettled his family in New Zealand. On Friday the 71-year old sat at the back of Al Noor Masjid. And when hate came through the door, Nabi shielded a friend with his body. Haji Nabi died. His friend lives. [ix] Love never ends.
Halfway through the shooting at the Al Noor mosque, Naeem Rashid rushed the shooter. He was killed. But in that instant, with no weapons, just his hands, he tried to stop the horror. [x] And when the shooter arrived at the Linwood Masjid, Abdul Aziz ran at him, throwing a credit card reader and then a gun that had been dropped. As the shooter drove away, Aziz continued to follow the car. Practical. Courageous.[xi] Love never ends.
My phone buzzed again on Thursday. The Session had begun the discussion that would result in the decision to receive an offering to help send Byron Vasquez’s body home. Words from a South African song from the days of apartheid went through my head:
Courage, our friend, you do not walk alone
We will walk with you, and sing your spirit home[xii]
Through our gifts, we will walk with Byron as his body returns to his home. Expressing the love that binds us together in Jesus Christ, we accompany Byron even as he is held in God’s eternal embrace of love.
I asked the Session if could I post about the offering on the church’s Facebook page and on my own Facebook page. I thought a friend or two might contribute.
Several have. Among them Janice Stamper. A Presbyterian minister, she left her church in Alaska to provide care for her aging father in Kentucky. After a lengthy illness, her father died a year ago. We prayed for her and “Ol Pap” as she called him. She sent me a message on Facebook asking how to mail a check. As I teared up, I typed back that this was amazingly kind. Jancie replied, “I sold my father’s truck. I have some money. People helped me bury my father. This is my turn to help someone else.” Love never ends.
In response to one of my first posts about the shooting in Christchurch, a friend wrote: “It’s a wicked world we live in, Mark.”
It’s a wicked world we live in. I have thought about those words ever since. I will probably continue to think about them for a long time to come.
And I don’t agree. I will stand with Louis Armstrong. We live in a wonderful world. God’s creation bears incredible beauty. People can be incredibly kind and loving. We experience tender mercies and moments of grace regularly.
People suffer. People die. People die suddenly and for reasons we may never understand. People die far too young. People die because they have difficulty accessing medical care.
Sin exists in this wonderful world. Evil exists. Wickedness, to use my friend’s word.
People do wicked things. Incredibly wicked things.
Systems and structures are shaped in ways that benefit some people and disadvantage and violate other people.
The world is broken and fearful and frightening.
In this broken, fearful, frightening world where sin, evil, and wickedness are so strong, I have chosen love. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say God’s love has chosen me and in response I choose to love as well as I am able.
“We love because God first loved us.”[xiii] We find those words in the first letter of John. They are the essence of the Biblical narrative. Out of love, God creates. For love, God creates. God makes us to love God and one another and again and again, God invites us to love. And God acts to show us how to love. Jesus lived, died, and has been raised to show God’s love for us and to open us to love.
God embraces us in merciful love that extends to the whole human family. God challenges us to address the issue of “othering” people from whom we differ. Othering is what Byron and so many people experience when they are falsely told they have less value, they do not belong, there is something wrong with them because of where who they are. In the place of such othering, God invites us – demands from us that we see all people as our siblings.
Tommy Sands sings:
Let the circle be wide ‘round the fireside
And we’ll soon make room for you
Let your heart have no fear, there are no strangers here,
Just friends that you never knew[xiv]
Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it in more theological language: “God sent the Son and the Spirit to descend into humanity’s darkness and despair, bringing the light of love and hope … As God has embraced us in merciful love, we now warmly embrace the wounded and the excluded in world as a testimony to the merciful love of the Triune God.”[xv]
Or as Robina Winbush wrote in a reflection published on Valentine’s Day, “Love is the essence of God in our midst … [in God’s] love we discover that there is no “other” there is only LOVE manifested and waiting to be known.”[xvi]
In this wonderful, wicked world, love has encountered me, love has grasped me, and I have said yes. As well as I am able, I will love. And in love’s name, I will work to end hate, disrupt white supremacy, and create justice, equity, and peace.
For those who make the choice to love, phones will still buzz. People, friends will die. Wickedness will take place.
Heads will spin. Hearts will ache. Pain and wounds will be endured.
We will be hard pressed. But not broken.
For love never ends.
Love never ends.
Thanks be to God,
Love never ends.
After a brief pause, I issued the following invitation:
Loved by God, we can love one another. We can love at any time. We can love at every time. We can love now. I invite you to greet one another in the love of God, the peace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
[iii] I Corinthians 13:6-7
[v] Luke 13:34
[xii] My first experience of this song is the use of these lines in Eric Bogle’s song, “Singing the Spirit Home.” Here is a video of the song being sung – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JidpXcKZits – in an incredibly brave move, I led the congregation in singing the song today
[xiii] I John 4:19
[xv] Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Embracing the Other (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015). P. 169
Attacks on places of worship (Tree of Life, Mother Emmanuel, Oak Creek gurdwara to name but three) are always attacks on the community. Crimes of hate and terror may target individuals but they are always intended to send a message to a larger community.
As my heart aches and my mind reels following an attack on Muslims at worship in Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand by a white supremacist/white nationalist, I look for ways to respond.
Here are three small steps found so far:
Spread the word. #ChristchurchMosqueAttack
And a bigger one:
Look for ways to disrupt white supremacy and white nationalism
Worship this morning at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone focused on responding to gun violence. Planned and led by our confirmation class and youth group, the service invited us to connect with hope’s daughers: anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. (Augustine)
Walking. Morningside Gardens
Shine – Stoneman Douglas Drama
God Is Love – Marvin Gaye
Valentine’s Day – Bruce Springsteen
You Can’t Hurry Love – Diana Ross & The Supremes
Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher – Chris Ardoin & Double Clutchin’
Stronger Love – Joan Armatrading
Rain Us Love – Native Root
One Love/People Get Ready – Bob Marley & The Wailers
Love Me Like a Rock – Paul Simon
LOVE. – Kendrick Lamar
Thing Called Love – Bonnie Raitt
Love Is the Greatest Story – Earth Wind & Fire
Sunshine of Your Love – Cream
To Be in Love – Al Hirt
Glory of Love – Otis Redding
Crazy Love – Van Morrison
Gift of Love – Sweet Honey in the Rock
Love You ‘Till the End – The Pogues
28 October 2018
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. Mark Koenig
46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.51Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Bartimaeus – the son of honor. Once could see. Lost his sight. Encountered Jesus. The crowd tried to keep him away. Jesus called Bartimaeus to him. The man who was blind threw off his cloak and went to Jesus. After a conversation, Jesus healed him. He regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way. Remember Bartimaeus who threw off his cloak. We will come back to him.
Events of the week rocked my world.
People make up a significant part of our worlds. Family. Friends. Members of Christ’s body. They touch and enrich us.
Values make up a significant part of our worlds. Faith in Jesus Christ. The principles which guide us. The practices by which we act.
Places make up a significant part of our worlds. Places we have lived. Places we have visited. Places that shape and form us and give us meaning. In the words of Archibald Graham, the one-time baseball player who found his true calling as a doctor in small-town Minnesota in the movie Field of Dreams, “This is my most special place in all the world. Once a place touches you like that, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.”
People. Values. Places. Events rocked all three of those parts of my life this week.
People. On Wednesday my brother’s father-in-law had died. Charles Wilt – Chuck as we all called him – had been ill for a while, but still his death was a bit unexpected. He worked for state of Pennsylvania on water safety. I saw him at every family gathering. He was a kind, gentle, thoughtful man with one flaw. He liked Notre Dame football. He was buried yesterday wearing Notre Dame socks. It was a blessing to know him.
Values. Today we mark Reformation Sunday. We Presbyterians trace our roots in the Reformed tradition to John Calvin.
John Calvin followed Jesus and knew that Jesus was a refugee. Fearing what Herod might do, Joseph and Mary took the infant Jesus to Egypt for safety (Matthew 2:13-15). Calvin was French, he left his home and went to Switzerland where he eventually found a leadership role among the followers of Jesus in Geneva.
These itinerant experiences of our ancestors have made welcome an important value for my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and to be in ministry. The separation of families at our border grieves me. What impact does that have on the parents and children involved? What does that say about us as a nation that such separations have happened and continue?
Many responses to the people coming from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and other countries grieve me. People are leaving their homes and making a perilous journey to what they perceive as greater safety. “These individuals are largely asylum seekers, families of people who are seeking safety. How we react to them says a lot about how we value them as human beings,” said Teresa Waggener, immigration attorney for the PC(USA)’s Office of Immigration Issues. How we react to them says even more about who we are as human beings. For whatever reason they flee their homes, they all have rights under international law. They all have a claim on us as people made in the image of God. What does it say about us as a nation that our leaders encourage us to respond with fear rather than to love?
By training, Calvin was an attorney. He believed that God is God, as I heard in a sermon last week. God is God. And God is God of all of life. We follow Jesus in all our living. Every part. That includes our public life – our life together – the ways in which policies are made and implemented. Calvin referred to the office of “civil magistrate” – the authorities – as the “most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.”
While I have never had the desire to be a civil magistrate or to run for public office, I have long understood advocacy as part of my calling as a follower of Jesus and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian church. This involves communicating with elected officials and supporting positions on issues. It does not involve publicly supporting any individual candidates. I will encourage you to vote. I will never say vote for a specific individual. But I will say vote.
My heart broke in June 2017 when a gunman opened fire on Republican congress people as they practiced on a baseball field. My heart broke this week as I learned that pipe bombs described by the FBI as “potentially destructive devices” were mailed to people across the country. The recipients include Democratic public officials, former government employees, and a funder of progressive candidates and causes. Any political violence – in whatever form, be it overt or subtle – tears at my values and rips at our society.
Places. On Wednesday, Mr. Maurice Stallard and Ms. Vickie Jones were killed at a Kroger grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. Race played a role in the killings. Mr. Stallard and Ms. Jones were African-American. The shooter is white. He tried to enter an African-American Baptist Church before going to the Kroger. I lived in Jeffersontown for six years when I worked in Louisville. My go-to grocery store was the Kroger on Taylorsville Road where Mr. Stallard and Vickie Jones were killed.
Yesterday, a shooting took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. 11 people are reported to have been killed and 4 police officers and two others wounded. The gunman reportedly made anti-Semitic remarks during the shooting. In addition, his social media account indicates his anti-Semitism. It is also reported he expressed criticism of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for its work with immigrants and refugees. The link between HIAS and the Tree of Life remains unclear; one report indicates the synagogue recently hosted a HIAS event.
I noted that the names of those killed at the Tree of Life had been released shortly before our service but I had not been able to find them. Clerk of Session Lisa Sisenwein did so during the service and I read the names:
- Joyce Fienberg, 75, of Oakland;
- Richard Gottfried, 65, of Ross;
- Rose Mallinger, 97, of Squirrel Hill;
- Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, of Edgewood;
- brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, of Squirrel Hill, and David Rosenthal, 54, of Squirrel Hill;
- married couple Bernice Simon, 84, of Wilkinsburg; Sylvan Simon, 86, of Wilkinsburg;
- Daniel Stein, 71, of Squirrel Hill;
- Melvin Wax, 88, of Squirrel Hill;
- Irving Younger, 69, of Mount Washington.
Squirrel Hill is a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It’s Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. He lived there. A Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers was not a member of a congregation. But he was an active participant in Sixth Presbyterian Church, located about a 10-minute walk from the synagogue. On Saturday evening, Sixth Presbyterian Church hosted an interfaith prayer vigil with neighbors – neighbors – of all faiths and no faith. While I never actually lived in Pittsburgh, I spent most of my early life in Western Pennsylvania – within the orbit of Pittsburgh. It remains one of my “most special places.” When pushed to name a place as home, I reference Pittsburgh.
Events of the past week rocked the people, values, and places of my world. Perhaps these or other events rocked your world.
What do we do? What do we who follow Jesus do in times such as these?
We grieve. We weep. We rail and rant and rave. Sometimes we grieve hard.
We pray. We light candles. We make music and sing songs, even when they are cold and broken Hallelujahs. As another Leonard, Bernstein in this case, once said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
We remember that, as challenging as life becomes, God is God and God is with us. God never promises to make life go the way we would like. God never promises a life free of pain and struggle. What God promises is God’s presence. In all things. Whatever life brings. God holds us . . . strengthens us to rebuild . . . frees us to care for one another . . . inspires us to work for new beginnings . . . God loves us . . . God leads us to new life.
We remember Jesus. Jesus knew the sorrow and pain of this life. He lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire He encountered sickness and hunger. His earthly life ended in arrest, torture, and execution. And his closest friends? His followers? One betrayed him. One denied him. Others fled from him. Only the women remained.
But, God raised Jesus from death to life overcoming the power of sin and death. In so doing, God affirmed Jesus’ life and witness that we are made for each other. We are made to be loved. We are made to be love.
We remember the followers of Jesus. The disciples through the centuries. Those who took in the spirit of Bartimaeus, I told you he would be back. We remember the people who heard the call of Jesus and jumped up and threw off their cloaks and followed him.
This seems a particularly appropriate day to remember Jesus’ followers. Today we celebrate 147 years of witness and ministry by that part of Christ’s body known as the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone. We stand in the long tradition of followers of Jesus. Particularly, we stand in the tradition of those good folk who threw off their cloaks and followed Jesus in Queens. Some are long gone, and we follow in their footsteps. Others sit in the pews around us. We remember that today. And we give thanks that we do not have to work alone.
Because after we grieve and after we remember, we have work to do. As Rabbi Rick Jacobs said, the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, and other attacks on places of worship and acts of hate, reveal that “the fabric holding our nation together is fraying. It is our task to ensure that it does not come apart.” We have work to do.
We need to challenge speech that is hateful or that incites violence when we hear it expressed. Words do not pull the trigger on guns. Words do not build explosive devices. But words create an atmosphere in which some people think it is OK to build and send bombs and shoot guns. Pastor Gregory Bentley reminds us that “Words create worlds. The power of life and death is in the tongue. Choose life and speak life!” When we hear words that express hate or stoke violence, we need to find ways to respond. We can tell the President and other public servants to stop the hate. We can stand up to bullies. We can refuse to laugh at jokes or comments that demean or degrade.
We need to recognize that all people are made in God’s image. All people are precious to God. Anti-Semitism, white supremacy, patriarchy, nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia and other prejudices and systems that divide us and that say some have people have more value than others, cannot go unconfronted. When we find ourselves in gatherings where someone says something racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic or otherwise hateful, those of us who hear can no longer look at each other uncomfortably. This has to end. We – I – have to find the courage to disrupt such thinking whether it is our living room or on the Internet or at public events. We must also work to dismantle the systems build on such lies. The Rev. William Barber tweeted “I am reminded of what Dr. King said after four little girls were murdered in an Alabama church: ‘we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.’”
We need to learn about the issues we face. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has created a resource about addressing gun violence. We could do a study about that if we wanted to do so. Our Presbyterian Office of Public Witness and Office of Immigration have made available resources to help us learn about the people fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. A few copies of those resources are on the table in Fellman Hall. We can make more. Various organizations including the Presbyterian Church can help us address racism. More Light Presbyterians and others provide insight and support for overcoming the oppression of our LGBTQ siblings.
We can welcome each other. We can share our condolences and support with our Jewish friends. Or we can make the effort to make Jewish friends.
We can give. I made a small contribution to Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue, a fund started by Muslims in Pittsburgh to help with the expenses faced by families who had a loved one killed or wounded in the shooting. I am happy to tell anyone who might like to consider making such a gift. I know that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is in conversation with Pittsburgh Presbytery and may provide opportunities for giving. But there is something immensely satisfying to me to be a Christian contributing to a fund organized by Muslims to reach out to a Jewish community in the aftermath of religious violence that can strike any faith community.
We can reach out to our African-American friends. We can reach across the wondrous diversity that God creates and build the community for which God creates us, for which Jesus redeems us, and for which the Holy Spirit inspires us. To adapt a statement by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush of Auburn Seminary, this is time for “people of all faiths [and no faith] to come together, reject the hate and work for the future of our nation where there is no supremacy by any one group, and all are welcome, there is equity for all and that the tree of life bears fruit for all.”
To do that, we double down on love. It might be tempting to withdraw from the world around us. To try to create insulated pockets of safety. To circle the wagons and hunker down. To make it through life as individuals. Safe and secure.
But Jesus revealed that God does not make us for isolation. God does not make us to live as individuals. God does not make us for safety and security. Jesus revealed that God makes us for relationships. God makes us for love.
And as Lin-Manuel Miranda, speaking as he received a Tony award about twenty-four hours after the horrific slaughter of members of the LGBTQ community at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando:
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
In the face of difficult days and troubling events that shake our worlds, we have the opportunity to be like Bart. To hear the call of Jesus and throw off our cloaks and with hearts shattered in pieces and tears streaming down our faces and voices cracking with emotion and knees knocking with fear, to love one another, to love everyone as disciples of Jesus. To love fiercely. To love graciously. To love, by the grace of God, as well as we are able. May it be so. Amen.
Killings motivated by racism at the Kroger where I shopped when I lived in Louisville.
Killings motivated by anti-Semitism at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, where I have never lived but claim as home because it is more recognizable than the nearby small towns where I did live.
Pipe bombs sent to public figures, putting at risk the intended recipients and everyone who came near the packages.
Words do not pull the trigger on guns. Words do not build explosive devices. But words create an atmosphere in which some people think it is somehow acceptable to build and send bombs and shoot guns. When we hear words that express hate or stoke violence, we need to find ways to respond.
Racism. Anti-Semitism. White supremacy. Patriarchy. Homophobia. Ableism. May we find ways to disrupt and dismantle these and all systems that divide us and distort our living.
See you along the Trail.
From my friends who have commented on the act of terror that involved the killing of nine people, nine of God’s children, nine of my brothers and sisters, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, I share, with permission, some words that touched me:
This is outrageous – this white terrorist murderer said “you’re raping our women and taking over our country and you gotta go” before killing 9 African Americans, and Fox is trying to spin this as the nutty right wing “Christian persecution” complex that somehow this is part of the war on people with traditional values. This was racial hatred – our own particular American sickness. The white shooter has not been portrayed as a “thug”, or even a terrorist, even though he has a mug shot and was arrested twice in the last 3 months. “We do know we’ll never understand what motivates someone to do this” (Governor Nikki Haley) Yes, we do understand what motivates him – he told them – racial hatred. And a white terrorist, according to the media, must have some sort of mental illness, or bad childhood, some reason to explain his actions, other than that he was raised in the US, where racial hatred is taught and not addressed and is so rampant that our media give this white kid all kinds of white privilege.
– Patrick Evans
What happened in Charleston was not random or senseless. It was an act of domestic terrorism fueled by ever present white supremacy. Church, let’s not live in denial.
– Christine Hong
Senseless (adj.): A word that forever needs to be extracted from our political and national vocabulary, especially after instances of mass violence. We can make sense of the horrific murders of nine black South Carolinians gathering for Bible study– and it starts with confronting a culture which idolizes guns and violence and refuses to acknowledge white supremacy.
– Kyle Cristofolo
Recent events are almost incomprehensible. From the precious lives lost, to how it happened, to the fact that these acts of hate happen way too often, to the policies that allow them to happen, to the hatred and bigotry that undergird the violence. Wish this wasn’t true. RIP, our fellow humans, brothers and sisters, and neighbors. It seems almost trite to say that we send thoughts and prayers to the impacted community…right? But maybe we do that, in combination with holding onto conviction and hope for a better tomorrow, that we have the courage and will for justice to co-construct better and more peaceful communities and country.
– Ester Sihite
And finally, my own words:
I grieve for my brothers and sisters, unknown to me in person yet my family nonetheless, who were killed in Emanuel AME Church. I rage against the racial hatred and anger that apparently resulted in the killing of God’s precious children. I ache at this bloody reminder of the power of the system of racism to shape our behavior. I hear a call, again, still, to work with my sisters and brothers more creatively and effectively to dismantle racism and to build community and to address gun violence. And I pray for the grace and courage and faith and hope to respond.
With thanks for my friends.
See you along the Trail.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reaches out to its sisters and brothers of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston
From the leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reaches out to its sisters and brothers of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina, where nine people were killed when a gunman opened fire Wednesday night during Bible study. We grieve with the families of the victims and members of their church community. We hope the perpetrator is soon captured and brought to justice.
The chief of police in Charleston has named this a hate crime. We know of no other name for a crime that forces a five-year-old child to play dead in her church in order to live. Arresting the shooter is the job of law enforcement. Arresting hate is the work we are all called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ. May God never give up on us as we face our own racism and its tragic impact on congregations, their communities, and our very souls.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, God who has brought us thus far on our way, only you know why someone would enter into your house of worship and open fire on your children. Only you know why hate would run so deep that it would cause one of your creations to kill others you have formed. In our confusion over this senseless act, we appeal to you for understanding and courage to continue to fight for justice. We pray right now for the families of those who lost lives at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. on June 17, and ask that you would wrap your loving arms around them and the entire community. Likewise, we pray for an end to the continued racial unrest and violence that permeates the United States and the world, and ask you to guide us to work earnestly for change. Now unto you who is able to keep us from falling, we pray all these things.
Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Executive Director, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Heath K. Rada
Moderator, 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Larissa Kwong Abazia
Vice Moderator, 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)