Saturday, January 22, 2011

It was just another Saturday morning


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church - Delray Beach, Florida
2 Epiphany - Year A (RCL) - Jan 15/16, 2011
Isaiah 49:1-7; Ps. 40:1-12; John 1:29 - 42
Preacher: The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

            I will give you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth…Isaiah 49:6

            It has been a sad and sorrowful week. We are a nation still reeling from the shock and horror of the shootings last Saturday in Tucson.  The deaths of Judge John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, Congressional staffer Gabe Zimmerman and 9 year-year-old Christina Taylor Green, as well as the wounding of 14 others; among them Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords -- who, though having made remarkable improvement in this past week, is still in critical condition and far from out of the woods -- are a tragedy for this nation. We are hurting as country; we are wounded as a people. And it all began as just another Saturday morning.
            I was grateful for the President’s speech in Tucson on Wednesday night.[1]  I thought he said the things that needed to be said. It felt to me that he spoke from the heart and ministered to the nation.  There appears to be wide agreement about that across the political spectrum.[2]  He paid tribute to the victims and heroes in Tucson. He invoked scripture.
            President Obama let his presidential persona recede for a moment and allowed his role as the father of young children come to the fore when he paid tribute to 9 year-old Christina Taylor Green.  It was clearly a very emotional moment for him and, I suspect, for all of us who listened to him.  How could it not be?  A nine year old girl born on September 11, 2001, was shot and killed because she had dreams of serving her country through politics.  She went to a Safeway Supermarket to meet her congresswoman.  
            In one part of the speech, President Obama paid tribute to one of Congresswoman Giffords’s volunteers; a young man named Daniel Hernandez who was present at the speech. The President said to Mr. Hernandez and the audience in Tucson, “We’ve decided you’re a hero Daniel, you may deny it, but you ran through the chaos to minister to your boss and tend to her wounds, to keep her alive....”[3] And he had....
            And now we as a people need to see through the chaos; to minister to our society; to tend our wounds and keep our nation alive...” This will take work...Healing the wounds of Tucson should not be misunderstood to imply forgetting, pretending it didn’t happen; seeing it as something in the past that was a tragic and rare occurrence, an anomaly.    As the President said, “we cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence....”[4] 
            This is the third time in my 11 year tenure as Rector of St. Paul’s that this kind of mass shooting by young men has taken place. The first was at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 when 18 year old Eric Harris and 17 year old Dylan Klebold killed 12 persons and injured 22 more.[5]  The second was at Virginia Polytechnic Institute on April 17, 2007 when 23 year old Sueng Hui Cho, who had been identified from the time he was in middle school as having serious mental health issues,  killed 32 persons and wounded another 20 using a Glock 19 9 mm automatic weapon.[6]  
            This past week, a prominent figure quoting former President Reagan, publically stated that “We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker....It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is responsible for his actions....”[7] Would that it was so simple, so black and white; but it’s not.  The Tucson shootings, the story of 22 year old Jared Loughner, underscore real challenges for us as a nation. There is no excusing his actions; he will be held accountable and personally responsible for his actions of last Saturday. It is likely that he will either go to prison for life or that he will be executed for his crime. Still, I wonder, could this have been avoided?  Can future occurrences such as this be prevented?
            It is clear he is a mentally-ill young man. He had been identified as a potential danger to others by school authorities. Nothing was done. Nothing was done and this 22 year old, troubled young man went into a Sportsman’s Warehouse store and legally purchased a 9 MM Glock and a 30 round magazine; all of this after the school authorities had suspended him.  The suspension notice had been delivered to his home by two Arizona law enforcement officers.[8]
            Last Saturday, on the morning of the shooting, he went into a Wal-Mart where a salesperson reportedly refused to sell him ammunition because the salesperson was concerned about his behavior. 20 minutes later he went into a Super Wal-Mart where he was sold the ammunition.  This is a young man who gave all kinds of evidence that he was disturbed, yet he was able to purchase an automatic hand gun and a lot of ammunition and to do so legally.[9] This, to me, points to at least two major crises in our country: a mental health crisis and a gun violence crisis.
            In 1975, the United States Supreme Court, in a landmark case, O’Connor vs. Donaldson, which involved a man who had been involuntarily committed by his father in a mental health facility in Florida, ruled that involuntary commitment of a mentally ill person violates their civil rights unless the person is an imminent danger to him or herself or others.[10]  This was and is, no doubt, a correct decision; there had been lots of abuses and scandalous treatment of mentally ill persons in this country. It was a horror; the system was broken.  The problem is the mental health system still is broken, we don’t know what to do and so we put people with serious mental health problems on the street....Kathleen and I and the rest of the staff find ourselves frequently ministering to them as they walk through our doors. And they remain on the street, often untreated, without medications, until there is a problem, and then our society throws them in jail.[11]
            Now we need to be very careful here; research indicates that those who are mentally ill are statistically no more violent than those who are not mentally ill.[12]  But let’s be honest; mental illness combined with violent tendencies and easy access to guns is a formula for disaster; it’s a formula for Tucson, for Virginia Tech.
             How is it that a young man who had been identified a possible threat at his school, who had been asked not to return to school until he had a letter from a mental health professional indicating he was not a threat to harm himself or others; how was such a young man able to purchase a 9mm Glock automatic handgun after the school had identified him as troubled?  This is not dissimilar to what happened with Seung Hui Cho in the Virginia Tech shooting.
            This country is in denial about the seriousness of our gun problem. Please understand, I’m not opposed to guns and sport shooting. I’ve been to the Delray Shooting range. I’ve fired a Glock 9 mm. I went to camps and military school where we were taught to shoot and I’ve owned my own rifle for sport shooting. Though I’m not a hunter myself, I recognize that there are those for whom sport hunting is a passionate recreation.  Nonetheless, there is something wrong in this country when we allow such easy access to guns and also lead the wealthiest nations of the world by a large margin in gun deaths, both per capita and in actual numbers.[13]  In 2007, the last year for which statistics were reported, there were nearly 30,000 firearms deaths in this country, 12,632 of them homicides.[14] In that same year in England there were 42[15], in Australia, 30[16]...No other wealthy nation in the world comes close to our numbers.[17]
            As always happens when a tragedy like the Tucson shooting occurs, the rallying cry goes out, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people!” That’s true enough; but through its own laws, policies, cultural norms and failures society and its governments can and do contribute to the problem.  Over a 2 year period, more Americans die from gun violence than American soldiers died in the entire war in Vietnam.  That should trouble us; it should trouble us a lot. We’re all in this together.
            This weekend we honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King reminded his readers and reminds us, that as Americans and as human beings, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[18]  There is no such thing in a society as isolated individualism. Thanks be to God.
            In telling the story of last Saturday in Tucson, it is important to remember that the story is not solely about one deranged gunman; it is also about the heroes.  It is about Daniel Hernandez who rushed to Congresswoman Gifford’s aid. It is about Dorwan Stoddard who dived on top of his wife when the bullets were flying and who lost his life in saving hers.  It is about those who tackled Jared Loughner and fought with him as he attempted to reload.  It’s about the first responders, the EMTs, the doctors and the nurses who gave aid.  It’s about the American people who have responded compassionately in grief and in love to those who were killed and wounded and to their families. And it has been reported late this week that the organs of Christina Taylor Green have  were donated and have been received by another child, a little girl in Boston.  This is both heroic and hints at resurrection!
            As the President said in his speech Wednesday night, “for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and the things that divide us are not as strong as the things that unite us...”[19]  I absolutely agree with the President…I hope we all do…I constantly see goodness and decency represented in the people of St. Paul’s and the ministries of compassion we perform… May it always be thus.
            Still, as the President also said, this tragedy calls for a process of reflection, in which “we must make sure we align our values with our actions...”[20] In doing so, we must engage in discourse that is civil, because only a “more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make [the victims of the Tucson shooting] proud.”[21]  We are called to speak the truth in love.[22]
            As Christians, as Christians who are Episcopalians, we are always called to the work of healing and reconciliation.[23] Our Baptismal vows demand that we seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbors as ourselves; it compels us to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.[24]
            In today’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet speaks of a servant, a suffering servant,[25] whom God was to send into the world as a light to the nations, all the nations.[26] It wasn’t enough for this servant to be parochial; to be for Israel and Judah alone; that was too light a thing... “I will send you as a light to the nations; that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth....”[27]  For us as Christians, Jesus is that servant, that Suffering Servant.  Jesus is that instrument of God’s salvation. Jesus is that Light. 
            In the biblical world the word “salvation” - “saving” originated with the idea of God rescuing Israel from her enemies....With Christ and the Church, there began to be a recognition that we needed a greater rescuing; that we were engaged in a struggle with the spiritual forces of evil and wickedness and that we needed a savior to call us out of these. And we need such a Savior, evil such as that which took place in Tucson last week is evidence of our need.
            Jesus, Prince of Peace, Light of the world, Lamb of God, is that Savior. He provides us with a way of looking at things differently, of looking at them with the eyes of divine love. He offers us a way also of talking with one another in way that heals, not wounds. He can allow us space to be humble enough to “listen to one another with deep empathy and concern.”[28] Jesus offers a means of “expanding our moral imagination in a way that reminds us that all our hopes and dreams are bound together.”[29]
            Toward the end of an early sermon he preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. imagined he was writing to the American Church as the Apostle Paul. It’s a powerful sermon, as most of his sermons were. He closed it saying, “I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. Over the centuries men have sought to discover the highest good.”[30] “This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy,” Dr. King continued.  This was one of the big questions of Greek philosophy. The Epicurean and the Stoics sought to answer it; Plato and Aristotle sought to answer it. What is the summon bonum of life? I think I have an answer America. I think I have discovered the highest good,” Dr. King declared. “It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As John says, ‘God is love.’ He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.”[31]
            As we continue to be healed following the Tucson tragedy; as we begin the serious process of reflection in this tragedy’s wake, it is my prayer that these words and this knowledge, “that love is the most durable power in the world,”[32] will lead us; that we will follow the light of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, into that love. That, that light, that love, will always shine in the darkness and that it will never be overcome.[33]

[1]   Obama, Barak – President’s Address at The University of Arizona, Wednesday, January 12, 2011 – For transcript see
[2]   See Meckler, Laura and Weisman, Jonathan “Obama’s Speech Wins Over Critics” The Wall Street Journal, January 13, 2011 -         
[3]   President Barak Obama, Speech in Tucson, January 12, 2010
[4]   President Barak Obama, Speech in Tucson, January 12, 2010
[5]   See Wikipedia, “Columbine High School massacre” at   
[6]   See Wikipedia, “Virginia Tech massacre” at
[7]   Palin, Sarah “America’s Enduring Strength” January 12, 2011 – For Video see; for transcript see
[8]   See Eaton, Leslie et. al “Suspect’s Downward Spiral”  The Wall Street Journal On-Line, January 13, 2011 at       ; See Levitt, Ross and Candiotti, Susan “Police:  Loughner up all night at Walmart’s, Circle Ks before shooting” CNN,      January 14, 2011 at;  and Feldman, Linda “Why Jared Loughner was allowed to buy a gun”  The Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 2011 at
[9]  See Feldman, Linda “Why Jared Loughner was allowed to buy a gun”  The Christian Science Monitor,       
[10]   See Wikipedia, “O’Connor vs. Donaldson” at'Connor_v._Donalds
[11]    For a very provocative and well-researched discussion of this problem, see Torrey, E. Fuller et. al. “More Mentally Ill Persons Are in Jails and Prisons Than Hospitals: A Survey of the States”  May 2010, prepared                             by the Treatment Advocacy Center and The National Sheriff’s Association  which can be found at        .  See also “Mental Illness, Human Rights, and U.S. Prisons Human Rights Watch Statement for the Record Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law” September 22, 2009 which can be found at
[12]   See Elbogen, Eric B. and Johnson, Sally C “The Intricate Link Between Violence and Mental Disorder: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions” February 2009 found in the General Archives of General Psychiatry at; for a view that challenges this view somewhat, see Wang, Shirley S. “Is There Really a Link Between Violence and Mental Health”  Wall Street Journal Health Blog January 10, 2011.
[13]   See Carter, Chelsea J. “U.S. Leads Richest Nations in Gun Deaths” The Associated Press, April 17, 1998 at        See also
[15]   This number is an error.  There were 51 Gun Deaths in 2007 and 42 in 2008.  See
[16]    This number was also in error, there were 29 in 2006 and 25in 2007. 
[17]  See Carter, Chelsea J. “U.S. Leads Richest Nations in Gun Deaths” The Associated Press, April 17, 1998 at        See also
[18]  King Jr., Martin Luther  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963 See
[19]  President Barak Obama, Speech in Tucson, January 12, 2010
[20]  President Barak Obama, Speech in Tucson, January 12, 2010
[21]  President Barak Obama, Speech in Tucson, January 12, 2010
[22]  Ephesians 4:15
[23]  According to “An Outline of the Faith” in The Book of Common Prayer, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (p. 855). 
[24]  BCP p. 304 - 305
[25]   It has long been recognized that there are 4 so-called “Servant Songs” in Second-Isaiah that share a common theme.  They are found at 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11 and 52:13 – 53:12.  For a thorough discussion of this see Anderson, Bernard W. Discovering the Old Testament – 4th Edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1986) pp. 488 – 502. 
[26]  Isaiah 49:6
[27]  Isaiah 49:6
[28]  President Barak Obama, Speech in Tucson, January 12, 2010
[29]  President Barak Obama, Speech in Tucson, January 12, 2010
[30]  King Jr., Martin Luther “Paul’s Letter to the American Churches” A Sermon Preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist       Church, November 4, 1956 at
[31]   King Jr., Martin Luther “Paul’s Letter to the American Churches” A Sermon Preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist      Church, November 4, 1956.
[32]   King Jr., Martin Luther “Paul’s Letter to the American Churches” A Sermon Preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist      Church, November 4, 1956.
[33]   See John 1:5

No comments: