Therefore, we will not fear.
The Bible tells us 97 times to not live in fear.
- Our Christmas pageants begin with the angel Gabriel telling Mary not to be afraid. Later, angels tell shepherds not to fear, for they bring good news of great joy.
- In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says do not fear, for God knows the number of hairs upon your head. God will care for you.
- At the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples before his arrest, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
- Our favorite reading at funerals, Psalm 23, says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for though art with me.”
- Timothy 1:7 – “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and love, and of a sound mind.”
Living with courage and compassion in the face of violence, death, and danger is central to the Christian faith. After the Boston Marathon bombing, a reporter asked me in an interview, “I hope this is not insulting to ask, but does this kind of attack shake your faith?” I was not insulted by the question, but I was puzzled.
People seem to think that our faith will fall apart every time there is an earthquake, a madman on a shooting spree, or some evil befalls us. Where is your God now, they ask. How can you still believe in a loving God if this happens? My new answer is this. You should read our scriptures sometime. We follow Jesus, who did not flinch at evil, who died a torturous death at the hands of a corrupt religious establishment and empire, and we believe that was not the end of him. We gather monthly to eat his body and drink his blood symbolically because we trust he is raised in us so we can defeat evil in the world. Our faith has survived the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Germany, and Japan, and we will probably survive terrorists and the American Empire as well. We are not here just for the stained glass and the organ music. We are here because God is still speaking.
Psalm 46 is my go-to Psalm in times of tragedy because it has accompanied me through many hard times. The day after I was ordained, a family from my church was murdered. At least I learned ministry would be hard, and Paul was right when he said we would face the principalities and powers of darkness. Be not afraid should be part of the ordination vows. At the funeral, the Rhode Island Conference Minister, Rev. Dr. Daehler Hayes, began his remarks by reciting Psalm 46, eyes closed. I was mesmerized by the power of the Psalm to speak to a crisis from across the centuries.
God is our refuge and strength,
An ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
And the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
And the mountains quake with their surging.
This Psalm inspired Martin Luther to write “A Might Fortress is Our God” when his life was threatened for challenging the Pope. On 9/11, we read this Psalm at my church in Poughkeepsie, NY, as we waited for the commuter train to come home with our loved ones. These words have been my constant companion, helping me act with hope in the face of fear.
But I’m beginning to wonder if fear is not our problem. I’m not afraid of gun violence. I’m almost as likely to die in an auto accident as to be shot. I will point out that we have decreased the number of auto deaths annually since 1999 despite having more cars and driving more miles. Meanwhile, gun death has risen from 30,000 annually to 40,000 annually.1 We have shown that we can make the world a safer place to drive, but not from gun violence. I wonder why?
We discussed the Lewiston shooting at a clergy meeting on Thursday. A friend of mine said several years ago, her church, in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre, started lighting candles after each mass shooting and saying the names of victims out loud in the time of prayer. After a few weeks, it became clear that the church budget could not afford all the candles, and they would do nothing else by reading the names every week. Remember Newtown, the shooting at the Sandy Hook school, where 20 children and six teachers were killed in the largest school shooting. That 2012 massacre was supposed to wake us up and change things.
I have done so many candlelight vigils. I served a church in Poughkeepsie, NY, for 12 years. When I arrived in 1992, the city had a higher murder rate than the Bronx. I heard gunshots at night from my house. People were so afraid to come downtown to my church in the daylight, so we organized a Good Friday prayer walk where we substituted stations of the cross for stations of the city. For many church people, it was the first time they had walked the city streets where I walked to work every day.
I have gone to so many vigils since then. I’m not afraid, but I sure am weary. Thursday is my day to finish my sermon. I had half of a decent sermon done this week going into Thursday. As it became apparent that I needed to shift focus, I began to shut down. Going numb is not a good place to be when writing a sermon, but it is my emotional reaction. I have accompanied people through so many traumas that it takes a little time to get myself fortified to do it again.
Fear is not my problem as much as a tired, indifferent numbness. We get used to the way things are and accept it. What if we replaced the word fear with indifference in our scriptures?
- Be not indifferent.
- Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be indifferent, for thou art with me.
- God knows the number of hairs on your head, so be not indifferent.
- Though the waters roar and foam, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, I will not be indifferent, for God is with me.
I often hear that we aren’t supposed to talk about solutions after so many deaths from a shooting. It’s too soon. Give people time to grieve. Don’t exploit the moment by talking politics. So, when can we talk about gun violence? This year, there have been 560 mass shootings in America where four or more people are killed. 559 other communities besides ours have gone through the grief and loss we are now experiencing. We are averaging two mass killings per day. So when can we talk?
(You may think the sermon is getting political, so I will discuss prayer first. People ask me to pray for people, especially for the victims of violence. I’m not very good at praying about something and then doing nothing. If I pray for the victims in Gaza, Israel, or Lewistown, don’t ask me to stop there because I take prayer seriously. If I pray for hungry people, I don’t merely hope they are fed. I urge you to bring food to the community fridge, and we have a food pantry downstairs. I believe prayer changes my heart and leads me to action. So be careful with your prayer requests! You might change me! To ask me to pray for victims but to be silent about the politics of gun violence is not fair. And it is not how prayer works.
You have heard it said guns are not the problem; people are the problem. As the new Speaker of the House said, “It’s not guns; the human heart is the problem.” We understand the problem of the sinful human heart. That is why it is hard to buy Sudafed. We regulate the dangers of the human heart. We have fishing licenses, so we don’t overfish; mandatory training and insurance to drive a car. To adopt a puppy, you must prove you will be a decent pet owner. Every right comes with a responsibility.
Jesus told Peter, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” He did not intend that to be a motivational saying. Jesus told Peter to put down his sword. He was cautioning Peter that we cannot put our ultimate trust in possessing a weapon of violence. It is time to put down the AR-15. Living by an assault rifle does not make us free or safe.
Hear again the words of Psalm 46, “God breaks the bow and shatters the spear and burns the shields with fire.” It does not say that God only fights evil by changing human hearts. God destroys the armaments of war. (And God can take on new military technology too.). Afterward comes the call to be still and know God. We can also reflect on Isaiah 2, “They will beat their swords and shields into plowshares and pruning hooks. And they shall study war no more.” It is essential to a peaceful society to reduce the implements of war. At the height of the Cold War, under the threat of nuclear annihilation, the US and Soviet Union negotiated a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the SALT talks. When 40,000 people die from gun violence annually, equal to the number of soldiers killed in Vietnam, it is time for a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty in America. If enemies can make treaties, isn’t it possible for citizens to reason together and find a way forward.
By all means, send your prayers to Lewiston. Prayers can heal the human heart. Pray too, for our elected leaders to finally make the changes in gun laws most Americans want. After you pray, buy a stamp, and write to your legislators. They can still have a change of heart. Rep. Jared Golden here in Maine is from Lewiston, and he came out against assault weapons this week.
Be not afraid. Be not indifferent. Be resilient. Be hopeful.