This morning, I had planned to follow up our stewardship witness with a lovely sermon tying that Gospel reading about faith (Mark 10:46-52) into our pledge campaign. Specifically, that sermon was about tithing, which is something we don’t talk about enough in the Episcopal Church.
Then yesterday morning happened, and 11 people were killed by a gunman in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Specifically, they were killed because they were worshipping in a synagogue in Pittsburgh – worshipping the One God according to the tradition of their ancestors, who are also our ancestors, by the way. This shooting isn’t just “tragic” or “senseless” or any of the other weary adjectives we find ourselves using, over and over again, as scenes of death spread across our land. This is anti-Semitism in its fullest expression. This is terrorism. This is hate, incarnate.
And appallingly, this kind of violence is becoming routine, like bedsores on a body politic unwilling to move itself. Even here in our heartland, we’ve seen hate-based violence against innocent people because of their culture, or their skin color, or their faith. An Olathe man was shot in a bar simply for being South Asian. People were shot at our Jewish Community Center simply for being there. And of course, if you look further afield, the examples multiply. In Charleston, a white supremacist killed nine people during Bible study, simply for being black. And now, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, life will never be the same. As worshippers gathered for Shabbat services – heartbreakingly, on a day of special joy as they celebrated the naming of babies – a man revealed the heart of hate by shooting innocents because of their faith.
As God’s family of St. Andrew’s, we join the rest of our nation as we grieve the presence of evil. Those feelings may also take their next steps, from grief to powerlessness to fear, as we come here this morning to worship the same God they were worshipping at Tree of Life Synagogue. Not very many years ago, no one could have imagined that coming to church in this country might feel like putting yourself at risk. And yet, I wonder how many of us heard the news yesterday, and watched the reports, and wondered whether we’d be safe in our own house of prayer for all people.
I want to remind you that St. Andrew’s has an armed security officer on site each Sunday morning. I say that in the hope of reassurance, but I also say it with tremendous grief. Almost exactly a year ago now we took that step, following the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. We discussed it in Vestry and heard passionate opposition, faithful church members saying that, because we are God’s people of hope and peace, we must witness hope and peace, rather than reflecting the fear and violence of the culture around us. In the end, we chose to use an armed security service, and I hope God understands why. Certainly, yesterday’s violence reminds us why we made that awful choice. So, know that the security officer will be with us in the weeks to come, too.
You should also know also that we’ve been developing an emergency plan for our congregation, including what to do in situations of imminent threat. We consulted with a local expert from another Episcopal congregation; and our operations manager, Michael Robinette, has experience with this from his service in the U.S. Navy Reserves. The emergency plan will go to the Facilities Commission very soon for review and full implementation.
But even as we grieve and feel powerless, we need to remember the power that reigns over and against the violent choices of a broken world. Millennia ago, the God who created the heavens and the earth chose a people to be a missionary presence of divine love to the world. God made a covenant with Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through his descendants. God called Moses, the unlikeliest of heroes, to lead God’s people out of slavery to a great empire and into their own land of promise. God united those people under Kings David and Solomon; and in its best moments, the nation revealed the blessing that comes when we walk in God’s ways. Over the generations, the people and their leaders erred and strayed like lost sheep, forgetting the Shepherd’s covenant. And eventually, they fell into exile – a consequence, the biblical writers say, of turning to their own ways, and the ways of the world around them, rather than holding fast to the commandments God had given them. “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live,” Moses had urged the people, “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
But even after military defeat and exile to a foreign land – even in the moment when faithlessness carried its greatest cost – the God who is Love promised to bring them home, to make a new covenant, commandments written on living hearts, not dead stone. We heard the promise this morning, in the Old Testament reading that just happens to be appointed for this Sunday. Hear again the powerful love of the Lord who redeemed a people and keeps doing so, over and over again.
Thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob … and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to … gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back … for I have become a father to Israel. (Jeremiah 31:7-9)
Violence may threaten God’s people – in Pittsburgh, and in Charleston, and even here in Kansas City. But racism and anti-Semitism and hate will not have the last word. For our God reigns and will not keep silent. The God of Love reigns, and hate will not endure.
But in that inevitable trajectory, as Love completes its conquest of sin and death, we have a part to play. In God’s great drama, we have lines to speak; and we must not shy away from the truth when evil seeks to confound us. When we hear hate, we must name it. When we hear divisiveness, we must unify – even though that guarantees none of us gets just what we want. When we hear apologies for darkness, we must shine the light on it and chase evil back to its lair. For God gives us the power to be instruments of peace in a violent world. And God expects us to use it.
We may be grieving, and we may feel powerless, and we may even be afraid. But don’t forget the power we wield. In the face of evil, we can speak love. In the face of hate, we can pray for transformation. In a society that seems increasingly to run to the extremes, we can be people of calm and steadfast witness for the holiness of unity and common cause. As the weekend’s tragedy continues to unfold, and as voices then compete to control the narrative, I ask you to join me in prayer:
God of all peoples, faiths, and races, who calls us to love one another as you love us: Be present with those whose lives have been rent asunder in Pittsburgh. Bring holy rest to the dead. Bring your healing to the injured. Bring your peace and hope to their families and faith community. For those who justify hate and use prejudice to foster their own ends, turn and change their hearts. And for our nation, strengthen and encourage the millions of us who long for union to supplant our discord. Empower us to stand and speak as your witnesses, bringing civility to a culture of division and peace to a culture of violence. This we ask in the name of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.