Mark 12:28-34-28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Martin Duque Anguiano
On the afternoon of April 20, 1999, when I arrived home from school, I found my mom watching television seated on the plaid pattern couch that had a central place in our family room. I sat down on the couch beside her and we watched the unfolding live coverage as SWAT teams attempted to apprehend two individuals as they laid siege to Columbine High School.
With coverage from news helicopters above, the infamous school shooting was emblazoned into the American consciousness that April afternoon. How can you forget the images of high school students running across the green with hands above their head, flanked by SWAT teams on every side? I recall that in subsequent weeks, the news covered every angle including whether or not the assailants were socially awkward and excluded from hanging out with the popular kids at school. Were they emo? Were they devil worshippers? Did they learn they firearm skills from playing video games? Were the assailants diagnosed and treated for mental illness?
Just about 8 years later, I remember walking across campus at Randolph-Macon. I was a college sophomore. As the day unfolded, we began hearing the news that a mass shooting had begun at Virginia Tech, just a few hours away. When I heard the news, I began texting and emailing friends I went to high school with. I called friends who worked at the restaurant during the summer and were enrolled at Virginia Tech. My classmates and I watched Facebook for posts from our friends at Virginia Tech indicating they were safe. By dinnertime, the news was reporting that 32 individuals had their lives cut short by a lone shooter.
Wednesday afternoon I came across a news article that a shooting at a Parkland, FL high school was underway and the assailant was at large. When I left the house for Wednesday night dinner and Ash Wednesday worship, there were no reports of fatalities yet. Within just a few hours, 17 confirmed fatalities including students, coaches, and educators and an apprehended shooter.
We are just a few days into the season of Lent preparing for the Easter feast. It is supposed to be a season of introspection, searching the inner life, undergoing a deep moral inventory, seeking forgiveness from God and one another for our rebellious spirits, and attempting to repent and believe in the good news of Jesus Christ. Lent is a season to remember our mortality, that from dust we came and to dust we shall return. The Ash Wednesday massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was an unholy way for communities across this country to step across the threshold into Lent.
In the past few days since the mass shooting, you and I both have seen a resurgence of strong opinions about gun rights, gun control, mental health and treatment, the role of law enforcement, and the like. Many of these strong opinions we hadn’t heard since the week after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. From every corner of creation and walk of life, blog posts, podcasts, and news interviews light up the internet with a perspective on America’s addiction to mass shootings especially those in schools, AR-15’s, and mental health services. I hope you’re reading and listening well to the plethora of ideas and opportunities that are arising to solve the epidemic of children and teenagers being murdered at school. Surely, shared among us is enough common sense and collective will to stop this madness but then again, we haven’t figured it out yet so perhaps we prefer this reality over changing.
This morning I want you to think theologically about the world around you, not in the partisan frames we’re often given. I want you to consider where love, the most powerful force in the world, is or is not at work in your life? What power does the reign of God have when confronted with an armed assailant? Is a mass shooting evidence that we have failed terribly to love God and neighbor? Are we all created in the image of God? Do you really believe that when one of your brothers murders children? What is evil? In this season of Lent, we must ask, what have we done or failed to do that has helped young men walk a road into abysmal darkness, violence, and hatred that ends in a hail of gunfire? How have we propped up visions of the world that are unequivocally violent, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic for such is not the reign of God?
Perhaps asking questions like the aforementioned ones is an uncomfortable exercise. It requires a searing look into our own lives when we’re far more interested in the troubled, violent, broken life of the Parkland shooter. He was orphaned. He was mentally ill. He was grieving the death of his mother. He was consumed when his girlfriend started dating another guy. We search accounts of his life hoping to find the needle in the haystack motive that explains his destructive actions.
As I read through some of his social media exchanges with classmates, I was overwhelmed by the intensity of hatred in his language. How can another human being descend into such a living hell? His language indicating his hatred of blacks, hispanics, and gays also caught my attention-but then I remembered I had heard this language before, rather frequently actually. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised with an abundance of weapons of war available for sale, that young men especially, are unleashing vile forms of masculine destruction on helpless victims. Far too many of us by acts of commission or omission have cultivated an atmosphere where these shooters thrive in pursuing destruction.
In other words, collectively, across this country, we are not loving God and our neighbors well. Parkland could have just as easily been Kingston Springs. It could have been Green Hills. If we were loving God and neighbor well, I believe that we would see individuals and communities restored, healed, hopeful, and transformed. But for that to happen, we all have a part to play. We have to choose to love our children and grandchildren more than our right to purchase weapons of war. We have to choose to serve children and youth who have never had the fortune of sun shining on their life. We have to stop the discriminatory and inflammatory nonsense that is denigrating toward our neighbors of every age and walk of life. We have to love our youth well, for they are living in a tumultuous world.
A particular note is worth emphasizing, I regard the work of Dr. Beck, her educators, and staff as part of a sacred trust. Families believe every day their young people will be given opportunities to learn and explore while participating in Cheatham County Schools. For a time, children and grandchildren are put into the care of their educators and families deeply yearn for that to be a safe and fulfilling time until they return home. I commend the educators and first responders of this area to your love, care, and prayer every day. They carry an immense weight that usually is unnoticed until a time of tragedy like this past week.
As I said in the wake of the shooting in Las Vegas, I wish that the the violence of a murderous mass shooting was something we had never seen before. But we’ve seen it time and time again over the years. An insidious encroachment of evil is for us to become accustomed and expectant for schools, houses of worship, and places of recreation to be terrorized by shooters. God’s reign is eroded when our neighborhoods are terrorized. Our gospel of Christ is watered down and cheapened if the only response we can imagine to the terror in Parkland is to prepare for more violence. We are peacemakers. We are healers. We are Christ’s living body that believes in a beloved community where relationships among neighbors are made whole.
The terror in Las Vegas, Parkland, or Burnette Chapel Church of Christ shakes the foundations of life-we’re not sure how safe we are anymore. We may be more inclined now to retreat from our neighbors, to shy away from sacred houses of worship, to see everyone stranger as a threat, to escalate rhetoric of force and violence simply because we’re scared.
On this side of Easter and in the midst of terror and tragedy, we still believe that the grace and love of Jesus Christ is the most powerful force for good in the world. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can break the bond of love that Christ has for you. As sure as I am that Almighty God feels the suffering of those terrorized, and has brought those murdered in Parkland into everlasting peace, I’m sure that the grace of God will one day fully reign over a new creation.
Bless you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.