Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Gun Control Begins Here”
(Matthew 21: 33-36)
October 8, 2017 (18th Sunday after Pentecost)
You have come here this morning for a host of reasons. Perhaps you are visiting this city that purportedly never sleeps and decided to come and check out this congregation’s rich musical tradition; maybe you are here because, well, that’s what your parents taught you to do every Sunday morning when you were a kid. You might be here longing to snuggle beneath God’s gentle wings after a frenzied week. Have any of you perchance come to hear what this wrinkled and humdrum preacher might say about last Sunday evening’s massacre in Las Vegas?
If you have come to hear my take on Las Vegas, be assured I have preached about guns a time or two during my years of ministry. One Spring, the church I served in inner-city Philadelphia was packed, night after night, as enraged African American citizens demanded justice following the cold-blooded murder of ten-year old Tracy Chambers by white snipers. I preached at YBB Mushala’s funeral, the father from Tanzania who worked for Voice of American and was murdered with a shotgun at the tavern he owned near Howard University. I once disarmed a member ready to blow his brains out. Many of you have already heard quite a few of my other gun stories. Oh yes, have I ever preached about guns!
Let me be clear lest I sound muddled: I despise guns, absolutely abhor them.
Our nation is plagued by a dreadful gun epidemic. The United States has only 4.4% of the world’s population and yet we own almost half the world’s civilian-owned guns.
We are numb. Perhaps numbness is the best day-by-day survival technique we can adopt in this gun-crazed country. Why were we not more shocked when we awakened Monday morning to hear the horrifying news that Stephen Paddock had unleashed the deadliest mass shooting in our history, killing 58 and injuring more than 500? Las Vegas today, Sandy Hook yesterday, who knows where tomorrow? Numb!
Regardless of what you think about the 2nd Amendment and how the right to keep and bear arms relates to militias, I harbor the quirky assumption that most of you, perhaps all of you, believe there is one pesky little commandment that puts that amendment to shame: “You shall not kill.”
Yes indeed, I intend to speak about guns this morning and, in particular, how they apply to this lovely vineyard God has entrusted to our care at 65th and Central Park West. While we may not be packing a pistol this morning, we may be packing an attitude just as lethal. This is where gun control begins for us.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me—let us not believe in childish fairytales! Words are deadly, one of the most violent weapons we brandish.
Frederick Buechner urges when we pray at night “to remember not just the wars fought on a national scale, but also the wars that we’re all of us engaged in—aggressive wars to gain control, to get the upper hand, to have the last word, to get our way, fought not with weapons or even letters, but with silences and tones of voice and all the ways we know of fighting with each other. We’re often at war with the people we love the best.” He goes on, “…at the end of the day, as you look back over your wars, ask yourself, who were you fighting today? Did you deliver the knockout blow? Was it worth it?”
Churches, lamentably, are notorious for our lethal artilleries. I have heard reports of people jumping across tables and engaging in fist fights at council meetings. One assistant to the bishop told me about a church in his synod that was forced to institute a policy forbidding members to bring guns to church meetings—imagine that! Many have been moved to tears at such meetings, vowing never to return; sadly, some never have. Such meetings cause me to say—often not in jest—if I get to heaven and a council meeting or congregational meeting is in session, I will ask Saint Peter if there is perchance another option for eternity.
Before we talk about deranged killers in Las Vegas and Orlando, Sandy Hook and Charleston, let us examine ourselves. How we treat one another in this vineyard speaks volumes about what we believe about violence. Today’s gospel reading invites us to a higher way, to seek Jesus’ face in every person here, especially those with whom we disagree. We dare not revert to that pathetic old saw, “This is New York and that’s how we do things.” Nonsense! God invites us to a more excellent vision: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Oh yes, we are obliged to speak about gun control and that conversation must begin here. And yet there is so much more to talk about. Jesus comes to this vineyard this morning. That is, of course, why we should pray that God will disarm us all. The first epistle of John says, “Whoever does not love abides in death.” Constant bitterness and lingering rancor lead to death, in ourselves and families, in our churches and nation. When we plead with God for all to be disarmed, we are praying for life for our friends and our enemies.
When we arrived here this, God offered us a breathtaking weapons exchange; we were invited to trade in our own deadly weapons of bitterness and hatred, pettiness and selfishness, for the astonishing forgiveness of God. In a few moments, as we pass the peace of Christ, my deepest longing is that we will hear the heavenly words, “The peace of Christ be with you always,” from one who has done us wrong or whom we have offended.
That, my dear friends, is how we best begin the conversation about gun control, here in this vineyard edging on Central Park. By the grace of God, may we lay our weapons down and open our hearts, receiving and sharing the love of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.