Call and Response
In 1999, I had just accepted a call to Grace Lutheran Church in a suburb of the capital region of New York. Before starting my call there, I took my daughters on a spring trip to Charlottesville to see Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and James Monroe’s home, Ashlawn, and the University of Virginia, where I had gone to grad school. But on the second morning we were there, the television in the breakfast room of our inn covered news of this horrific, unprecedented event: 13 shot dead in a school shooting in Aurora, CO.
I’d lived in Denver. I knew Aurora. I knew its Lutheran churches. My mind just could not grasp it.
In 2007, Apr 16, I led a prayer service the evening of the Virginia Tech massacre in Blacksburg, Virginia. 32 dead. The congregation and me—we just could not grasp it.
In April, in 2009, 13 were shot dead in the town where I went to university, Binghamton, New York. The shooter targeted them because they were immigrants.
In 2012, on December 14 as I drove back from UAlbany where I was teaching then, I heard that a shooter, Adam Lanza, age 20, had killed 26 elementary school children and one adult in Newtown, CT, just a few miles away from where my nephew works as a child psychologist. The shooter, Adam Lanza had the five firearms his mother had purchased for him at his disposal. My nephew was brought in for grief counseling, knowing that his efforts could really do nothing to help.
By June, 2015, I had been serving our congregation for only a few months. On June 17th, Dylan Roof shot and killed nine people in Charleston, South Carolina. They were Black. They were in church. Here at St. John’s-on-Sand-Creek, we prayed for the victims and their families in our prayers. But I didn’t re-write my sermon to address this.
In 2016, 49 people were killed in an Orlando, Florida night club. They were targeted because they were gay. We prayed for the victims and their families in our prayers. But I didn’t re-write my sermon to address this.
In 2018, on Valentine’s Day, Nicholas Jacob Cruz returned to the high school from which he had been expelled because of disciplinary issues. There he murdered seventeen students and teachers with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle which he was able to obtain—along with other firearms--despite having documented mental health issues and racist, homophobic, anti—Semitic, anti-Muslim and xenophobic views. These included assertions that he wanted to kill gay people and Mexicans, writing that he hated black people "simply because they were Black," and Jewish people because he believed "they wanted to destroy the world."
At St. John’s-on-Sand-Creek, we prayed for the victims and their families in our prayers. But I didn’t re-write my sermon.
On October 27th, 2018, eleven people were massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, PA. I knew the area. I had been there. My ex-husband had grown up the next town over.
These murders happened the day before Reformation Sunday. We were having choir guests from Congregation Berith Shalom, just across the Hudson River where our music director serves the same role.
I was well award that, to the shame of our Lutheran heritage it’s long been hushed up that Martin Luther was a raging anti-Semite, publishing a tract in his later years called, “The Jews and Their Lies.”
So this time, I re-wrote the sermon.
Why did I do that? Was it because our guests were Jewish? Was it because half of my friends are Jewish?
But why didn’t I re-write the sermon when nine people were killed because they were black? When seventeen were killed because the killer was a mentally ill, but murderous bigot? When forty-nine people were killed because the killer thought they might be gay? When thirteen people were killed in my alma mater town because they were immigrants?
Did I not re-write those sermons because I am not an immigrant, because I am not gay, because I am not black? Did I not re-write the sermons because I can’t relate to those categories as well as I can to being around Jews and Jewish culture and religion has always been a central and dear part of my life?
Let me tell you, if that’s true, that’s the worst reason for not re-writing a sermon—a sermon which must condemn from the pulpit murderousness, ignorance, hatred and violence. Was it my own complacency, my privilege, my fear of what you might think if I wrote a sermon that some might think was too “political”? Probably—and I hate admit this--probably it was.
And—you know I love you all. You know I love this congregation, ever since I was a twenty-eight-year-old pregnant with her first kid and Joe and I sat in the St. John’s pews weekly. But Jesus didn’t die for us to simply feel good about having a friendly church. And I’m also not sure that Jesus died for us because some of us have done bad things—and let’s face it, many of us have.
I think Jesus died in order to show us that innocent people will die—and they will die without redeeming anyone, even their own lives—unless we truly address the issues that cause violence, division, injustice and—repeated, random murder based on hatred.
Today our congregation’s prayers focus on the massacre in Atlanta, killings that either targeted Asian people because of racism or women because of sexism. In this case, we don’t know if either is the case or if those killings--with a legally purchased firearm--was just a guy “having a bad day.” And we don’t know which of those three is worse--because they are a trio of awful.
But we, as people of God, saved by grace alone and joined with others of all faiths, need to awaken and re-awaken to the truths of this sorry world in which we have a chance to shed love, do some good, educate the deluded and foster inclusivity.
I don’t have the answers, dear ones. But when the next mass shooting comes—and sadly we know it will—you call me, you tell me, you insist: re-write the sermon, Pastor Jo. Because every word raised to raise awareness—yours, mine and ours—is how hope and change may—and God-willing--come. This is my prayer. This is our calling. Amen.