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Sunday, June 19, 2016

More than thoughts and prayers


“Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you."

 (Luke 8:26-39)

A Sermon Preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE

Well, I think we can safely say that this has been one heck of a week.

I don’t know about you, but I am still reeling from the death of Christina Grimmie, the 23- year old woman from NJ, a finalist on the TV program, The Voice, who was shot down after a performance while signing autographs in Orlando, Florida. 

Then, 49 people were murdered and 53 people seriously wounded in a gay club in Orlando. The murderer was a NY born American who was shot to death by police, bringing the actual total to 50 dead. 

Finally, in an horrific incident that has to be the vacation nightmare of every parent, a 2-year old boy was dragged into the water by an alligator at Disney World in Orlando and, despite his father’s heroic measures, was killed and later found dead in the water near his parent’s hotel room.

How do we make sense of any of this? It’s so tempting to move to the safety of the simplistic. Must be something about Florida, right? Is there something in the water there? Or, something in the air? Maybe it’s something about Orlando? Is this some sort of divine retribution or message?

The junior senator from FL is quoted as saying that these events happened because God was trying to send him a message about how he needs to run for reelection because his leadership is desperately needed. Imagine? It really is tempting to move into the safety of the simplistic, especially when you, personally, benefit from that position.

Some people joined one of the presumptive presidential nominees in believing the tragedy was vindication for the position to close our borders and deport all Muslims. Yes, the man who killed 49 and injured 53 in Orlando was a Muslim. And, so were the two men who set off bombs in Boston, MA. 

But the man who killed the men and women in a Charleston, SC Church one year ago this week was not. The man responsible for the mass shooting in the Aurora, CO movie theater was not.  The young men who killed their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado were not. The young man who killed children and teachers in Newtown, CT was not.

There are some people who will move to the safety of the simplistic because, well, because it’s easier than employing critical thinking. It’s easier to blame one group of people than to look more deeply into the multiple facets and causes of the tragedy.

There were some days this week when I felt like I had met that man in this morning’s gospel lesson, the man possessed of many demons who lived in the country of Gerasenes, which is just opposite Galilee in Jerusalem. (Luke 8:26-39) There were so many demons that, when Jesus asked him his name, the voices in the man responded, “Legion.” 

It would seem as if “Legion” in Scripture did not really die when sent into a herd of swine who tossed themselves over the steep brink and drowned in the lake below. “Legion” seems to be alive and well and living among us in our world today.

It seems as though legions of demons have infected our country and our culture and our people. The world seems to have gone mad with violence and hatred, rape and murder. And, what we don’t do to each other, nature seems to come up from out of the abyss to do to us and to our children.  It makes no sense. No. Sense. What.So.Ever.

We seem to be plagued by simplistic thinking that only adds to the madness. We want simple answers to complex questions. We want to assign blame to others so we don’t ever have to take responsibility for the bad that happens in the world. 

Blame it on the pigs and let them be tossed into the lake. Then, we can be done with it. Wash our hands of it. Then, we won’t have to think about it anymore. Just send “our thoughts and prayers”.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have any easy answers for you about what is really going on in this story from Luke’s gospel. I also don’t have any easy answers for you about what happened this past week in Orlando and the rest of this country.

I don’t know why bad things happen to good people any more than I know why good things happen to bad people. St. Matthew’s Gospel (5:45) tells us that God “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.”

What I do know is that a lot of good happened last week in Florida, too. While many people were content to “send thoughts and prayers” other people lined up for a full city block, waiting hours to donate blood. A major fast food company with a history of dislike of and prejudice for gay people brought sandwiches and iced tea to the people standing in line.

A major airline offered free airfare to the relatives of the deceased and wounded so loved ones could be together at this time of grief and crisis.

A Go-Fund-Me account started by a local gay organization has brought in over $3 million dollars to help defray the cost of medical and burial expenses.

A man who lived 1,200 miles away fashioned 49 crosses, painted them white and put the names of each one of the 49 people who had been killed on those crosses. And then, he drove them down to Orlando in his pick up truck so that the families of those who died would know that their loved ones had not been forgotten. That they were remembered and thought of and prayed for by a total stranger. 

The Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Central Florida, who has been notoriously opposed to blessing the sacred covenants of marriage between gay people organized a Prayer Vigil at the Cathedral and invited the Gay Men’s Chorus to sing in the very church where gay men are not allowed to sing in the choir and the previous dean had declined to baptize the adopted baby of a married gay couple. One of those who was murdered was buried out of the Cathedral yesterday.

And, in this country, it looks like there may be – may just be – some real movement to bring about public policy and changes in the law to at least control the sale of assault weapons to those who are on the “no fly” list. So, if your behavior has been suspicious enough not to fly on commercial airlines, you may also not buy an assault weapon.   

“No fly? No buy.” Sounds good to me.

The movement to bring a discussion about legislation to end to gun violence was started by a senator from Connecticut who organized a filibuster to bring the issue to the floor of the Senate. He was soon joined by two other senators. After a little more than 15 hours, everyone agreed to have the discussion and now a senator from Maine is working to make sure that those discussions result in legislation that is passed into law.

That’s a whole lot more than “thoughts and prayers”. Talk about tossing out demons over the sharp brink and letting them drown!

No, none of those acts of kindness and generosity – not even the effort to bring legislation to end the insanity of gun violence – is the solution to the problem of what happened in Orlando, FL or Charlotte, SC or Aurora, CO or Boston, MA.  

These are all just small but important steps in the long, complicated journey to live into what St. Paul wrote to the ancient church in Galatia: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

And, that, I think, is the real message of this morning’s gospel. The real miracle is not in “thoughts and prayers”. The real miracles happen when we put our thoughts and prayers into deeds of love and care.  

This morning’s gospel tells us that, when the people saw that the man who had been possessed of many demons had been healed, they were afraid. Indeed, they were so fearful that they asked Jesus to leave them. Imagine!

Just stop and wrap your head around that for a minute. Jesus healed the man, freed him from his tormentors, set him in his right mind, removed his chains and clothed him – and the people were afraid of what they saw. 

Had they become so used to the evil and the demons in their midst that they could not tolerate the absence of them? Is it easier to deal with insanity in our midst – because, at least then, we have someone else to blame when things go wrong?

One Senator from FL said, “Look, these things happen. It was just Florida’s, turn.” Seriously? Have we become so numb, so accustomed to evil and insanity and gun violence in our midst that we think it’s simply inevitable? We must simply wait for “our turn”.

I think Jesus would beg to differ with that position. And, so should we. This is a time – this is the day, this is the moment – for us as Christians to reexamine the teachings of Jesus. It’s not the time to send Jesus away but to embrace even more closely what we know of him and our identity as Christians given to us in our baptism.  

Indeed, in place of the Nicene Creed, I’m going to ask us to renew our Baptismal vows this morning. And, when we do, I want to ask you to think about the five promises we make. I want to ask you to consider how you are living into those promises. And, if you’re not, what you can do to make a change in your life to live more fully as a child of Jesus.

Fear is the path to anger. And, anger is the path to hate. And, hate is the path to violence. And, violence is the path to suffering. We’ve seen this pattern enough to know this to be true.  Fear leads to anger which leads to hate which leads to violence which leads to suffering.

We also know that this path can be diverted. Scripture teaches that “perfect love casts out fear”.

It is time to perfect the love we have from God in Christ Jesus in deeds that push us past our numbness to and passive acceptance of the insanity in our midst and, instead, into the reality of God’s unconditional love for all humankind. 

We don’t need simplistic thinking but we do need to get back to the basics. At one time, there was a slogan in The Episcopal Church that went like this: “Love in deed is love, indeed.”

Today, this Father’s Day, might be just the time to examine what it is you believe. Now, this day when we celebrate and honor the men in our lives who serve as a reflection of God’s love for us, might just be the best time to think about how it is that we put our faith into action. Today, this day, might just be the day to take the love that is in our hearts and make of it some deed of kindness and generosity.

“Love in deed is love, indeed.” Yes, it’s a simple thought, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. It takes effort – more than just “sending thoughts and prayers”. 

It won’t protect you from the bad things in the world – like preventing hurricanes and floods and wildfires, or alligators and snakes coming up from out of the water, or bears coming out from the woods – but it’s an important place to start to change the world.

In fact, it’s the only way I know how to change the world. Love. Love in deed.

One person. One pew. One church. One city. One county. One state. One nation at a time.

It begins with me. It begins with you. Today. Now. In this moment.

And, if God has healed you, if you have been changed and transformed, hear what Jesus said to the man he had healed, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."