It’s too hard to keep up. The stories of horrific, unchecked violence just keep coming.
It was in the middle of the afternoon this time. It was a high school this time. It was a 19 year-old former student doing the shooting this time. It was an AR-15 rifle again this time. This time there were 17 victims – students and teachers.
Parkland, Florida joins a list that seems to be becoming endless – a trail of blood and tears – Las Vegas, Newtown, Orlando, Columbine, Charleston, Sutherland Springs, and so many others. Violence. Unspeakable Loss.
Then the predictable cycle of grief, blame, debates between the various sides on the issue of gun violence, talk about mental illness and what can and should be done, and then we go back to life as usual. Just hoping that the next time the headlines spout another shooting spree has happened that we won’t be in the line of fire, or our children, or our grandchildren.
I’m heartbroken. And sitting down to write this sermon felt nearly impossible. Because it was just in November that we were talking about the 26 people who died in their Sunday morning worship service in Texas – butstatistics show that on average 36 people die each day by gun violence in the United States – that number does not include suicides. Sutherland Springs and Parkland and Las Vegas and Newtown and Columbine and Charleston and all the others just make the news because in those cases the violence was all condensed in one place.
You know the statistics as well as I do. We can hear them on the news if we choose or we can turn our heads and not listen.
I think one of the reasons that we scramble toward answers and blame in times like this is because if we don’t, all we are left with is grief and lament. And I don’t know about you, but I’m so tired of this grieving and lamenting. I’m worn out from thinking of the rivers of blood in our schools, churches, homes, workplaces, concerts – you name it. I’ve grown weary in my prayers, too. It was six years ago when I lit candles like those after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was nineteen years ago, the same year I became a pastor, that the shootings at Columbine High School happened. What was an unheard of occurrence back then has now become everyday. Somewhere along the way, I stopped lighting candles on Sunday mornings for those who died in gun violence because it was impossible to keep up. There weren’t enough candles to keep up with the bullets. I wanted solutions, not more grief. I wanted answers, not only prayers. I desperately wanted us to fix this broken gun-addled society, not spend more time crying out to God over our countless losses.
But then I was reminded that each time this happens, while we must keep working for peace and solutions, first we must grieve and lament for that loss of life, that additional scar on our humanity, the stolen joy and peace. When we stop taking time to grieve, it numbs us, we start getting too used to this. Not allowing time for grieving is the quickest route to treating this kind of bloodshed as a new, horrible normal.
There are all sorts of ways to grieve, of course. There’s no correct recipe or timeline. Grief is sneaky, too – just when we think we are starting to feel better or more normal again, something can set off a fresh wave of grief. A couple weeks ago my mom’s best friend died and in the days that followed I couldn’t understand why everything was making me tear up. I felt awful. I didn’t understand it. I cared about my mom’s friend but we weren’t terribly close. I was telling a friend about it and she matter-of-factly said, “Ruth, you have to realize that this isn’t just about your mom’s friend. It’s losing another connection to your mom. In a way, you are feeling the loss of your mom all over again.” And of course, she was right. The wounds of grief are never completely healed over and it doesn’t take much to rub the scabs off and we feel the pain all over again.
But perhaps it helps to remember that grief is human and necessary – and even something that Jesus himself felt. In the gospel for today, Jesus weeps after Lazarus’ death. It’s interesting to note that the scripture says Jesus was both moved by the grief of those around him and his love for Lazarus. His grief had many layers – as grief often does. When we think of another school shooting we grieve for those families who are planning funerals for their kids; we grieve for the families of the teachers who died protecting their students; we grieve for our own kids that they live in a world in which they not only have tornado drills at school, but now they have drills for what to do if a shooter enters the building.
Jesus began to weep. It’s an important verse. Especially when we hear people who are busy trying to make sense of these kinds of situations and saying all sorts of things. One statement I’ve heard over and over after school shootings is something like, “The reason that shooting happened in that school is because God isn’t allowed in the schools anymore.” I understand that the intention is likely well-meaning – that those who say something like that are promoting that they wish prayer or mention of God still be allowed in school. But there are distinct problems with this. First, it makes God sound pretty awful – like God is punishing every little school child and every teacher and school worker; like the hallways flowing with blood are due to something they have done to deserve punishment. This doesn’t sound anything like the God of grace we know. And secondly, do we honestly think school doors or school policies can keep God out? Do we believe that our beloved friends who are teachers and principles and workers of all kinds at the school don’t bring God along with them in their work and their words each day? Do we think for even a millisecond that our beloved children who attend school aren’t treasured and adored by God wherever they are – whether at home or at church or at school or at the mall or anywhere?! God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-present – there is no place that God cannot find us and is not with us. So, when we hear that kind of bad theology, “The reason that shooting happened in that school is because God isn’t allowed in the schools anymore.” – we must be careful and remind ourselves and others that God whom we know through Jesus Christ is not in the business of raining down bullets of judgement and bloody death because of human-made policies. Rather, where we find God in this in so many other places. Especially weeping with us.
He’s right there, right here, weeping with us. Jesus wept along with Mary and Martha and the friends and neighbors gathered – and Jesus weeps along with us today.
I know we want to fix this. I know we want just the right answer, the right policy, the right miracle, the right movement, the right hashtag that will fix this – so that this is the last time we ever have to mourn violence like this. Tomorrow, let’s get up and work toward all that, with whatever smarts and energy and insight we have – let’s work to solve the problem in big and small ways – not bicker about it on social media, not blame the right or the left, but work together so that this disease of gun violence plaguing our country stops. Our prayers must always go along with action.
But today we grieve.
We take time to grieve. Let’s pray…
Our God and God of all people,
God of the Rich and God of the poor.
God of the teacher and God of the student.
God of the families who wait in horror.
God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks.
God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways.
God of the doctor who treats the wounded.
God of the rabbi, pastor, imam or priest who seeks words of comfort but comes up empty.
God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.
God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body .
God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.
God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.
God of the Right.
God of the Left.
God who hears our prayers.
God who does not answer.
On this when we live in the aftermath of the 18th School shooting in our nation on the 46th day of this year, I do not feel like praying.
Our prayers have not stopped the bullets. Our prayers feel so little sometimes in the face of this kind of hyper-recurring evil.
But still, we lift them up to you. Be with us as we grieve this loss that is so senseless but not unexpected anymore. Weep with us as we yet again list names of your precious children who died violent, unnecessary deaths:
Assistant football coach and campus monitor Aaron Feis
Jamie Guttenberg – age 14
Martin Duque – age 14
Athletic director Chris Hixon
Geography teacher, Scott Beigel
Alaina Petty, 14
Gina Montalto, 14
Nicholas Dworet, 17
Joaquin Oliver, 17
Alyssa Alhadeff, 14
Meadow Pollack, 18
Peter Wang, 15
Carmen Schentrup, 16
Cara Loughran, 14
Alex Schachter, 14
Luke Hoyer, 15
Helena Ramsay, 17
Be with us as we grieve today. And help us rise tomorrow with strength, vision, and purpose to work however we can for peace.
We pray this in Jesus name. Amen.