The Rev. Blaine R. Hammond served as a supply priest at St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon was in response to the proper texts for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C. A manuscript of his sermon is below.
Good morning, and welcome to Ascension Sunday as we move toward the end of Eastertide.
Two Sundays ago, I was in a pew in St. Andrew’s Church in Port Angeles, listening to a sermon by the Rev. Sue Thompson about a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, committed by an 18-year-old young man. Today we are in the aftermath of a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, committed by an 18-year-old young man.
With the understanding that Ukraine is experiencing much more deadly and destructive violence right now, I want to talk about our response to violence in this country. What has been missing from the discussions I have heard thus far is any mention of what ordinary people can do in days like these. What I would like to talk about is how Christians ought to be thinking about this deadly plague, and what we ought to consider doing.
We are already dealing with one deadly plague. We have been told that the proper response to COVID is masks, social distancing and vaccinations. That is a very straightforward and simple set of instructions. There is no such set of instructions for the proper way of sending children to school without knowing whether you will ever see them again in this life.
We are sadly too familiar with what is happening now in the aftermath and what will be happening. There is a discussion over whether assault rifles should be banned. There is a discussion over whether any proposed legislation on gun controls would have stopped this from happening. News broadcasts are presenting non-stop interviews and analyses.
Some government officials say this is not the time to talk about legislation, and we know that means the time will never come, because until things quiet down it is always “too soon.” When others try to talk about blame or solutions, we are told that such people are politicizing the disaster.
And we hear about thoughts and prayers. I believe that thoughts and prayers are good things, but they fall under the rubric of the Epistle of James, when he wrote “faith without works is dead.” Thoughts and prayers should be accompanied by action whenever possible.
This is not the first time I have stood in a pulpit after an act of violence. It may not be the last. But after something like this, there is no place I would rather be than in church. On 9/11, I had just begun a sabbatical, and an interim priest was in the office. I was supposed to stay away. On that terrible day I wanted to go to my church, but it was closed to me. That really brought home to me the need for spiritual sustenance following a crisis that leaves one searching for comfort and meaning.
So for me the first rule – not knowing how you feel about rules – of how to deal with a disaster for Christians is church, a recourse to focus on our spiritual lives. We need church to remind us that our world and the human beings in it are not isolated and alone, that God cares about what happens to people and there is strength from our gathering.
Another thing we learn – let’s call it the second rule – grows from rule 1; it is that we do not have to face the hostility of the world alone. We are part of a religious community that believes in loving one another and spreading that love into the world. We belong to a Savior who was himself a victim of human violence and cruelty and yet preached about the love of God for each one of us, forgiving his killers.
On this Sunday after the Ascension, we need to remember that if it had not been for the Ascension, none of us would have a chance for a spiritual life with God. If there had been no Ascension and we wanted to know what God was doing, or what God wanted from us, we would have to travel to the Middle East to see Jesus, because he would be the only human being on earth filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. But because of the Ascension, he is not. We have that presence and power ourselves.
In the book of Acts we see how that worked out. Disciples who used to be scared of their own shadows, who could not understand the meaning of the things that Jesus said or did, became powerful agents of the Holy Spirit, spreading the Gospel of God’s love throughout the Roman Empire, often in unexpected ways and in the face of violence. They did this because they were listening to the Holy Spirit reminding them of the things that Jesus had done and that he had told them. So, they got beaten up by the authorities in Philippi and thrown in jail in today’s reading from Acts. They did not spend their time there in depression or fury; they sang hymns and prayed, and God set them free and changed the heart of their jailer.
Given that example laid before us in Scripture, we can see the outlines of what we ought to be doing; keeping our eyes on God as well as on the things that happen. I freely confess that I have as much trouble remembering this as anyone else does. But after the emotions of the moment spend themselves, I do find myself looking deeper and recognizing the nature of the God who lives inside as a God of love and forgiveness, a God of welcoming and compassion. So the third rule is to live a life in which love is a verb as well as a noun.
Does this mean we need to find ways to love those who commit these horrifying acts? Well, yes it does. And it means more than that – it means that we have to be awake to God’s purposes and leadings, which might lead us to be a part of the lives of some people we might sooner wish to avoid. It might mean risking our own emotional safety. It might mean loving people we have trouble liking.
I once saw a TV program about a man who had been a member of a neo-Nazi racist skinhead group. He was a hater, and he was violent, and he believed that violence was necessary to turn his fantasy of an all-white fascist USA into reality. Then he met someone who was willing to sit down with him and talk about what he was doing, and eventually he not only left the racist group, but he began a personal ministry of helping others to get out of that kind of life. He had results, because many people living a life of hatred and violence feel the negativity of that life somewhere inside and want to get away. So we come to the fourth rule: we have more in common with each other than we realize. It is needful for us to ask what we might all have in common, as divided as we are. I think we all would agree, for instance, that we want our children to be safe.
It is easy to have empathy for the victims, if we haven’t yet allowed ourselves to become numb to the pain. That numbing is one of the great dangers of living in a world where violence and pain are commonplace. Things that used to be rare, once-in-a-lifetime events have become normalized. The people who are now the targets of reporters seeking interviews will, within days after the reporters have gone, find themselves in great need, a need with which ordinary people can help. People are driven to their knees by this kind of grief, often paralyzed. You may feel that it is not that important, for instance, to carry food to a family that has just lost someone, but remember that they may not be physically and emotionally able to plan meals or cook right now. You may think about sending a card or making a call, but then think “I don’t know what to say.” You may fear to visit, to enter that pain, but it matters greatly to sufferers when you share it.
We need to turn our thoughts and prayers into actions. I do realize that it is not always possible to do that, but our thoughts and prayers are still important. If you can’t physically be present, there are charities, for instance, that can use the money you donate to make an impact that very few of us can match, so when we give even $5 to help someone that can be a powerful statement of love. Or we can simply be in touch.
My sisters and I did a memorial service for my father last weekend. He died in January, but because of COVID this was our closest opportunity to find a place, make plans and get friends and family together. There was a neighbor of one of my sisters who cooked up an amazing amount of food and brought it to her after he died, and she did so again on the weekend of the memorial service. She did it just because she cared enough to do it. This woman also checked ahead of time to find out whether there was food that some people couldn’t eat, and she made sure that everyone had something that worked for them. It was appreciated.
It is important to ask ourselves what we can do in a world where such pain has become normal. I urge you to read what Bishop Rickel had to say about ways to do something about this tragedy. He sent out a mailing on May 25th with ideas. I believe you can also find that on the Diocesan website.
I truly understand the desire to simply turn off the emotions. I also understand the anger and even the vengefulness that these murders can create. And I understand the temptation to respond with hatred ourselves. But when I ask if that is what God is hoping for from me, I have to answer “No.” Then the next step is to go deeper and ask what God does want from me, and do that.
These four rules occur to me as ways to get our responses sorted out and put in order to help us respond as God’s agents: remember to be in touch with our religious and spiritual community for inner strength; remember that we do not have to face the world alone; live a life in which love is a verb as well as a noun; and remember that we have more in common with each other than we realize.
Jesus in his high-priestly prayer in the Gospel of John, which we read a portion of this morning, prayed that his followers would be part of his life and his Father’s life. The violence done to Jesus ended up changing their lives and the life of the world, allowing us to be part of God’s life as well. None of us is capable of changing the entire world as Jesus did. But all of us are capable of being a part of that change. This can be very difficult to remember and focus on at such difficult moments. But it is what God asks of us.