Sermon Archives

Sunday, February 25, 2018
The 2nd Sunday in Lent (Year B)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
On Prayer and Guns

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Just twelve days ago, on February 14th, it happened again.

Sadly, I’m referring neither to Valentine’s Day nor to Ash Wednesday.  No, as we all know, on February 14th, we as a nation experienced yet another mass shooting, at a school no less.  Unfortunately, mass shootings have become so common in our life that we have become inured to their effect.  Even the media and our comedians have noted with cynicism the predictability of our national response: platitudes, posturing, inaction.

Yet, regardless of what number this latest mass shootings is, the Parkland massacre represents, we all agree I hope, that it is another too many.  We will all agree, I hope, that such tragedy and violence is not normal, nor should it be common in our life, and that some change must take place.

But that’s the challenge.  What action to take?  No matter what proposal we prefer, the options available to us live in tension with other values and priorities we hold dear as Americans and, perhaps, as Christians.  Should we elect to arm teachers and add additional security measures to our schools we threaten to take away yet another level of innocence from our children, and to teach them at an ever younger age that the world outside is filled with monsters to be feared and that our last defense if armed violence.  This is not an easy choice. 

So, too, the proposition to increase the age for gun ownership and to restrict or reduce the types of guns available for purchase by the general public, presses upon on a fundamental right of our American society and the great value we place as Americans on our personal freedoms.  For some, too, the acquisition of a gun is essential to their feeling of personal safety.  For a smaller few, the possession of a gun has meant the difference between life and death, their own or that of someone they love, or even an innocent, but defenseless, stranger.  This, too, is not an easy choice. 

No choice will be.

So, what are we to do?  How are we to move forward, either as an American society or as an individuals who may possess a gun or who may opposes them with all our being?

Of course, there are a myriad of ways that we can press forward – some will dive in without any more thought than the anguish of their heart.  There are others who will simply change the channel to Netflix and immerse themselves in whatever brings them personal joy and satisfaction.  Others will strengthen their defenses – emotion, intellectual, and physical – and carry on, unmoved. 

I encourage you, however, to begin in another place.  Prayer. 

Now, I know that some will hear this as yet another form of inaction, little more than a platitude of care for victims.  And there has been enough “thoughts and prayers” offered through the years with no corresponding change of behavior or policy, to lead one to the think that prayer means or effects nothing. 

But that is not what I intend to encourage.  In fact, if and when prayer is simply used as a way to assuage our own discomfort with another’s grief or to dismiss the fundamental challenges of our life or world than it must be dispensed with as quickly and completely, for such “prayer” is as useless and destructive as alcohol or drugs are to the real problems of life – personal and societal.

And yet, I am convinced, that prayer lies at the heart of any real solution.  You see, prayer is not about avoidance or inaction.  Rather, prayer is about committed, faithful, action.  Prayer is the discipline through which we take all the emotion, fear, and anguish which we feel, and all the values and freedoms that we hold dear, and all the options and possible actions that lie before us, to discern the narrow path of Christian action to which we are called.  And it is through prayer that we, daily, refine ourselves to stay committed to that distinct call and way of Jesus. 

What does all that mean?  And what does such prayer look like?

It means we first must stop and be still and listen.  The practice of daily prayer, is an act of intentional openness to and in the presence of God.  Such prayer demands, and invites, complete authenticity.  It is the place, perhaps the only place, where we can bring every ounce of our being.  What fears do you have?  In prayer you can safely name and feel them.  What shame do you bear?  In prayer you can safely express it.  What hopes and desires to you dream?  In prayer you can reveal them.

But such honesty, with yourself or with God, takes time.  It doesn’t happen between Facebook posts or tasks.  It takes the disciple of being still, listening and looking within us to raise what is unconscious to our awareness.

But prayer is more than simply a journey of self-discovery.  Authentic prayer also means listening to another voice.  It means being still and listening for not only your voice, but the still small voice of God speaking through the roaring winds and overwhelming thunder of our lives. 

There’s no telling what that voice is saying at any one time.  Sometimes, that voice is blessing – commending and celebrating a gift or dream or an action of your life, encouraging you or freeing you to move in one direction or another.  At other times, God’s voice may be one of forgiveness and mercy – hearing your shame and guilt for hurts and failures and missed opportunities of your life, reminding you of your belovedness still, releasing you through grace from the broken past.  At other times, God speaks to us a silent word of comfort though sheer and simple presence, for there are few if any words that soften the pain of loss and death like that shared tear with a dear friend, and so God whispers in our heart, “my heart aches as well.”  At still other times, God’s word is one of hope and promise, reminding us that, no matter how bleak or dark that path may appear, there is light and blessing ahead, and so God whispers, “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.”[1]

At still other times, God will speaks with passion, anger even, about what is broken, destructive, or diminishing, within us, or about us, or in our world.  To those voices within us that tear us down, that tell us that we are inferior or insufficient, God, says “be gone with you!”  To those people who pull us under or beat us down, encourages us with his confidence and a call to stand tall and firm.  It is here, as well, in this word of passion, that God will speak the word of others, reminding us of the needs and dreams and fears of others around us, remind us that we are not the only ones beloved by God or suffering in this world.

Finally, at still other times, God speaks a word of remarkable challenge to our heart.  At times God’s word will challenge us to take up a course of action that frightens us.  At other times, God’s quiet word will challenge us to reform ourselves, to let go of some deep passion because it conflicts with the very heart of God.  At still other times God’s word will challenge us to offer more of ourselves through forgiveness or generosity or sacrifice than we think we are able.

But never is this challenging word spoken alone – it is always surrounded by the eternal words of blessing for who we are, mercy for when we fail, comfort for when we hurt, hope for when the day is dark, and passion for the world and society we inhabit to be restored in glory through mercy and kindness and blessing to one another.

Of course, there are other transforming actions of Christian faith– acts of compassion and gratitude, and the disciples of study and service – but apart from prayer, they are all useless.  Absent of prayer, our actions and visions become merely our own, a reflection of our own heart and will, perpetually self-serving, far too often destructive of others, and ultimately contrary to God’s will.

Such prayer is seldom accidental or even natural, and never is it quick or easy.  On the contrary, it is a disciplined commitment to place ourselves, our hopes and fears, and even our values, in relationship with God.  To listen, not merely to ourselves, but to God who still speaks to us.

And when we do, we emerge transformed.  To walk through prayer, authentic, open prayer, is to be transformed.  That word of mercy, not only frees us from our past, but soften our hearts with one another, as we see and offer grace around us.  So, too, that word of blessing, not only refreshes and enlivens our own heart, but frees us to speak that same word of blessing to one another.  And God’s passion and anger emboldens us for a new world, and God’s challenge compels us to take new, even frightening action.  To pray is to be changed, and is the first and fundamental action, in a life of Christian discipleship.

What does this mean for the gun debate?  That I cannot say, but I can say this.  Only through prayer will we find the compassion we need to hear one another, only through prayer will we see a future that reflects God’s love for one another, and only through prayer will we find the courage to lay down what is dear to us, for the life of another.

[1] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love.