Before I begin this sermon and someone accuses me of “preaching politics," let me say that gun violence - while there are political dimensions to it – is primarily a social issue. And pastors are allowed to and supposed to preach about social issues and the appropriate Christian ethical response to them. Preaching about gun violence is no different than preaching about issues such as abortion or gay rights. You can disagree with me if you want, but you are going to have a hard time finding a Presbyterian pastor who does NOT preach about gun violence today. If I did NOT preach on this today – especially after the shooting in New Zealand – then I would not be deserving of my ordination. So, here we go…
In times of tragedy. When all seems to be wrong with the world. When it feels like evil is winning. The psalms of lament give us the words we need to pray. To express our deepest pain. To release our anger and frustration at God. And also to praise God even in the face of tragedy.
Last year, the Lenten season began with the mass shooting at Marjorie Stone Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. On that Ash Wednesday, 17 teenagers were shot and killed. In all the previous mass shooting up until then, our politicians continued to respond with the same, tired, meaningless mantra of “thoughts and prayers.” But Parkland was different. The students of Parkland were filled with righteous anger. And the students of Parkland were no longer going to accept the cowardly “thoughts and prayers” of the people elected to serve them. The Parkland students started their own movement – “March for Our Lives” – as they took to the streets on a tour all across the nation to help raise awareness about gun violence and to push lawmakers to pass common sense gun legislation. They are becoming the answer to both our and their own thoughts and prayers.
This past week, the gun violence that is all too common in America reached New Zealand when a gunman entered two mosques – right as the prayers were beginning – killing 49 Muslim worshippers and injuring at least 20 others. The man’s motives were fueled by his white supremacist beliefs – his fear of those who are simply different than him.
The leaders of New Zealand responded with thoughts and prayers, but then became the answer to their own prayers. The nation is banning all automatic weapons – weapons whose sole purpose is to kill people in war – so that such mass violence will not continue. Other nations that have enacted such laws have seen a dramatic drop in deaths due to gun violence.
Now I know that many out there may make the argument, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” But as my favorite British comedian, Eddie Izzard once said, “Yes, but I think the gun helps.”
I know there are those who believe in the “good guy with a gun” theory and therefore advocate for arming teachers and even congregation members of churches. First of all, a study conducted on New York City police officers found that under controlled circumstances, highly trained police officers only hit their target 30% of the time. And during intense situations – such as a shoot out – only hit their target less than 18% of the time. So why do you think you are going to be the “good guy” whose a better shot than a highly trained police officer.
At the same time, insurance companies are beginning to refuse to cover entire school districts if they arm teachers because all their data reveals that the risks increase when you do so. And insurance companies have no political agenda. They are all about dollars and statistics. They just want to make sure they don’t have to pay out and will avoid any risks that may cost them.
Our own insurance company even told us that while they would cover us if we armed congregation members, they will require strict guidelines and our insurance premiums would go up significantly because of the increased risk associated with arming congregation members. While planning for our safety team here at Grace – following the shooting at Sandy Springs Church in Texas – we consulted with a church safety expert who was both a former police officer and personal body guard for televangelist Joyce Meyers. The FIRST thing he said was NOT to arm anyone in your congregation. And again, it was emphasized to us that doing so increases the risks that someone in the congregation would get hurt. At the same time, in the event of an incident, law enforcement would not be able to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Teachers are taught this as well during intruder drills. They are taught NOT to pick the gun if they manage to subdue the shooter because they may be mistaken for the bad guy.
Yet, here in America, we keep using these same, tired old arguments to stop any kind of common-sense gun legislation. Legislation such as not allowing people found guilty of domestic violence to access a gun. Requiring background checks on everyone who buys a gun, including those purchased at gun shows and sold privately – which are current loopholes in the system. Not allowing people who show up on the terrorist “no fly” list to purchase guns. Not allowing people who have major mental health issues to purchase a gun. And yet, all these examples of common-sense gun legislation have been voted DOWN under the argument that second amendment rights would be violated.
Our loose and free gun laws are a deadly issue. The state with the loosest gun regulations is our own state of Missouri. And the regulations are about to get looser. Last year the state tried to push through a bill termed the “Guns Everywhere Bill” which would not allow any private business – including bars, houses of worship, private schools, and daycares – to restrict people from bringing firearms onto their premises. The law prevented public schools and universities from banning firearms from their campuses. And the law even prevented private land owners from banning people from bringing firearms onto their property, even if they posted a “no firearms allowed” sign. Basically, the law gave anyone a legal right to bring a gun anywhere and there is nothing you could do to stop it. The law, however, was defeated. But it is back again as Missouri House Bill 258. The bill is almost identical as the previous bill. I’ve included a fact sheet from “Everytown for Gun Safety” – the larger umbrella organization that Moms Demand Action falls under.
It’s important to note just how vulnerable this bill will make our children and others to gun violence. People cannot be prevented from bringing guns into bars where excessive drinking can lead to increased aggression. We recently had a man stabbed to death at the bar less than a block from here. Imagine if there was a gun used instead. How many other people may have been killed or injured? Imagine not being able to keep guns out of our sanctuary. Would you feel comfortable knowing that someone in the sanctuary is carrying a gun? Not to mention the violation of church and state separation the bill causes. Imagine people you don’t know having the freedom to conceal carry a weapon into your child’s school or daycare. How does that stop school shootings? Sounds to me like it can only serve to increase them. Finally, imagine having the right to decide who can or cannot bring a gun onto your own private property taken away. That is what this bill will do.
Personally, none of this sounds like common sense. It all sounds like an excellent way to frighten people into buying MORE guns and thus putting more money in the pockets of those in the gun industry. In America, when it comes down to common sense or money – money always wins. That’s why it says, “In God We Trust” on our money – not because we trust in God, but because money IS our God.
So the psalmist laments: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” How long are we going to tolerate this? And are we only going to sit and pray about it? The problem with “thoughts and prayers” is that we have this belief that God is going to somehow supernaturally make people change their mind if we just pray hard enough. Yet throughout scripture, we find people praying to God for help, and then going out and doing the work because God strengthens them to do it. That’s what happened at Parkland, I believe. The thoughts and prayers of the Parkland students gave them the strength to stand up and fight for their lives. And so I ask you to do the same. Don’t just offer thoughts and prayers for God to fix this – otherwise you will continue to lament “How long, O Lord?” In moments like these, you are the answer to your own prayers. God put you here for a purpose – and sometimes that purpose is to be the answer to the prayers of others, and sometimes to be the answer to your own prayers.
I’m going to have some of the Mom’s Demand Action members pass out cards to you. These are cards that will go to your local state representative. Take the time to tell them to vote “NO” on Missouri House Bill 258 because we do not want our personal property rights taken away, we do not want private business rights to be taken away, and we do not want just anybody to be able to take firearms into places where we expect our children to be safe from gun violence – such as our schools, daycares, and churches. Take the time to do that now. And as the offering plates are passed around, you can drop your card in there. And after today, take the time to call your state representative and tell them personally. Use the talking points on this handout about the bill to voice your opposition.
Between groups like Moms Demand Action and people like you and me – we can become the answer to our prayers and the prayers of others. And when we do – we will sing the final two verses of Psalm 13 –
“But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because the Lord has dealt bountifully with me.”
Or, as the old saying goes in the African-American Church tradition:
“God is good, all the time,
and all the time, God is good.”
Turn to someone near you, and offer this exchange of assurance:
“God is good, all the time
and all the time, God is good.”