Sunday, January 9, 2011

I Knock at the Door

I hesitate to share this sermon publicly for several reasons. Let me share a few.
1. My thoughts are not fully formed around yesterday's murders in Tucson, because:

2. The facts of the situation have not been fully established.

3. A sermon gives the appearance sometimes of a single coherent narrative but what you are reading is a piece of performance art offered to a specific congregation for a specific time and place.

4. The sermon is only one part of our ritual of worship. You were not there with us for hymns and prayers, to shake our hands in love, to eat with us. You were not there to shift uncomfortably in your seat when the preacher cut close to the bone.

5. So if you want to really know how it is with us and what this sermon means to us, you are welcome at our tiny church. And if you'd rather peek in as voyeur you are welcome too. Just know that you do not have all the angles.

Finally, for those who don't know, my theology and politics lie far to the left of this tiny congregation. For now this is where I am called to preach. For those of you who prefer a more strident call for justice, I challenge you to remember that I am not preaching to you.

Love to you all.

Sermon, Sunday, January 9, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: 1 Thessalonians 5 and Revelation 3:14-22

Yesterday afternoon, a gunman opened fire in front of a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona. According to news reports the gunman's name is Jared Lee Loughner. He shot and killed six people and seriously wounded several others, including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The six people who died were John Roll, age 63, a federal district court judge; Gabriel Zimmerman, age 30, director of community outreach for Rep. Giffords; Christina Greene, age 9; and three senior citiziens: Dorwin Stoddard, Dorthy Murray, and Phyllis Scheck. Rep. Giffords had planned a public event in front of the grocery store—a time for constituents to meet her and share their concerns. The event was well publicized on her website, and she’d even tweeted about the event, inviting people to come see her or contact her later with their thoughts. At this point it seems likely that Rep. Giffords was the primary target, but there is still a lot unknown about yesterday’s events.

Rep. Giffords is a democrat in Arizona—an unlikely third term democratic congresswoman in a state and district that is becoming increasingly conservative. She has been the target of lesser violence and repeated threats in the past. Early in 2010, Sarah Palin labeled a U.S. map with the names and locations of members of Congress who are too liberal for her taste. To mark the locations she used crosshair marks. It was a target list, and Rep. Giffords was on it. Yesterday’s shooting was an immediate illustration of why it is problematic to use violent and/or military metaphors in politics and in our everyday language. Individuals and groups sometimes take a call to arms very literally. There is no doubt that violent political rhetoric encourages and supports lethal violence. This last week alone two package bombs were sent to politicians in Washington, D.C.—incendiary devices intended to detonate upon opening. They were discovered, and thankfully no one was injured, but this is a scary time to be serving as a liberal politician.

These last few years have been filled and fueled by additional racial tensions. In 2007, many people would have told you that our country was not ready to have a black man as president—or at least that Barack Obama could not get elected. But elected him we did, and far from laying to rest racial tensions in this country, his presence has served to surface racial tensions that some of us naively hoped were left behind with the supposed desegregation of schools. Our post-modern, post-racial rainbow had finally led to the pot of gold, and many of us liberals imagined that our work was done. This is simply not true, and the violent rhetoric about race, gender, and sexuality continues today. One of the places that rhetoric flourishes is in discussions of immigration and healthcare—particularly in places like Arizona where the U.S. borders Mexico. Despite the sound bites, thes are complex knots of inter-related issues. Rep. Giffords was deeply involved in that complex knot—any Congressperson from Arizona would be. The language surrounding immigration discussions is steeped in violence and gun imagery. Arizona has much looser laws than we do here in New Jersey—there are much fewer restrictions on carrying concealed weapons. But it also must be noted that here in New Jersey we have our own immigration and health care concerns. Illegal trafficking in human beings pours through this state through nearby ports. Racial tensions here are high. We have urban cities in desperate need of assistance (Camden, Newark, Trenton), and we have suburban, conservative areas of our state where its normal to see gunracks in pickups. This could have happened here too.

Yesterday’s shooter appears to be somewhat troubled. He is a young man of 22, and preliminary reports suggest that he has a history of making threats and disruptive behavior. What little is available of his on-line profiles indicate a somewhat jumbled ideology that included violent imagery. It’s difficult to know much from internet rumors, but I imagine it’s entirely possible that this shooter has mental health problems. I worked at Bellevue for a summer as a chaplain on the prison floor and in a mental health unit. One thing I can say is that a substantial portion of the prison population has mental health problems. I’ve served as an ordained pastor only for a year, but I have served people and churches for the last fifteen years, and I can tell you that a substantial portion of our non-prisoner population also has mental health problems. Many of the people I met at Bellevue were just regular people worn down by circumstances, influenced by ideologies and religious dogma they didn’t always understand, and lacking the resources to properly care for themselves. I know that many of us here in this room deal with our own mental health problems or the mental health problems of our loved ones. How great is our grief as parents, siblings, relatives! Do you lie awake sometimes worrying about how your child will make it out there in the world? I do. For those of us who parent children with such challenges, yesterday’s events are a nightmare.

And then just like that my mind snaps back to the nightmare of those families whose loved ones were lost yesterday. Somebody’s 22 year old son shot somebody else’s 9 year old daughter. It is senseless, horrific, angering. And he shot elderly people. And he shot public servants. This is not war, even for those of us who believe in just war. This was slaughter.

I heard a lot of instant condemnation of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, Glenn Beck and Shawn Hannity. The list of conservative politicians and media personalities who have helped create this milieu of violence is rather long. The voices on the right are loud and vitirolic and frequent. But I am troubled by the idea that it is only the voices on the right that have created this atmosphere of violence. On the left we have failed to take this violence seriously. In many ways our response has been to use humor as a weapon. In many ways it works! It works—it is not hard to piece together an assemblage of a counservative politician’s words and point out the hypocrisies. John McCain is a perfect case in point—over the course of a many decade political career he has flip flopped on many issues and concerns, speaking with conviction each time. We watch the videos of Sarah Palin, spoofed by Tina Fey, and the humor flows easily. But do you remember what happens when you taunt a school yard bully? You might feel better about it and live to tell the tale, but the bully’s heart shrivels a bit more, and someone else may pay the price for your humor. Several friends have criticized me sharply for this line of thinking. But I can’t help but think that the left thrives off the right symbiotically; the more vitriolic the rhetoric is on the right, the more humor and money we can make on the left. If the right were more reasonable, what would we have to push against on the left? And vice versa. No, I am not equating the left’s habits of humor with the right’s habits of violent speech. I’m saying they are inter-related. I’m saying we are inter-related.

Paul Sarte wrote a play called No Exit—the story of three people stuck in hell together for all eternity. It’s one of my favorites, and I’ve told you about it before. Hell exists in a hotel room—a place of endless wakefulness and no toothbrushes. It seemed at first there was some kind of joy to be found in being in hell together. And after all it was a man and two women and there was attraction and entertainment to be found amongst the three of them, Inez, Cradeau and Estelle. But after a while they began to get on each other’s nerves. It became apparent that they could not ignore each other or get away from each other. At one point they agree to just sit silently, not speaking to one another, not moving, not making a sound. Their pact lasts all of a minute and they are back to verbally sniping at each other. Finally Cradeau says to Inez: “They’ve got the wires hopelessly tangled. If you make the least gesture, if you lift your hand to fan yourself, Estelle and I feel it. No one of us can save himself alone. We’ve all got to lose everything together or save ourselves together.” I have that same sense here, do you? The right and the left, we dance together.

Is there anyone who can be left behind in our prayers this morning? Should we not pray for Jared Lee Loughner? We pray hard for those who died this morning and those who cling to life. Can we also pray for Sarah Palin and other conservatives who contributed to this violent atmosphere that is choking us, literally to death? Can we also pray for the liberal comedians/media personalities who wave red flags for the bulls? Surely we must. This is not the same as attributing blame equally—I am not equating anything. The shooter and his accomplices (if any) are responsible for their actions. The right is responsible for their own rhetoric and the way that incites individuals and groups to violence. But the left also is a consumer and promoter of that rhetoric even as they push against it. And, in fact, a good many individuals and groups are making money and reputations off their vociferous opposition to the vitriolic right.

And therre is something that rings oddly for me about the accusations against the political right in the country. I’m still trying to put my finger on it, and my conversations around this have been less than productive. But it has to do with the way race, gender, sexuality and class are played out on the left to help bolster systems of violence, even as we speak out against them. It has to do with the violent underpinnings of our own language—racist and violent words we don’t even recognize. Our own propensity as liberal white folk to use the calamity of others for our own profit in a number of ways. Yesterday my own first thought was “Oh my God, how horrible!” and my second thought was “Sarah Palin had a target map???” So quick we are to nail the opposite side to the wall without examining carefully our own complicty. And to make my point for me, aides for Sarah Palin explained away the target crosshairs as surveyor marks and ojbected strongly to the left using this perfect political moment to nail Sarah Palin. How quickly we move from tragedy to who to stick it to. Hold the right accountable. But let us look to our own habits as well. (And for the LAST time that I will say this, I am NOT equating vitriol on the right with indifference on the left. I SAID they are inter-related.)

But my question today, and perhaps all you care about from this preacher, is what is our response as Christians?

I was told by many people this morning that I would be expected as a pastor to address this event—that to leave a congregation to sort out this violence on their own would be remiss on my part. And while I agree, I also dreaded preaching this morning. It is not an honor to preach the gospel or a prophetic word into the midst of tragedy; it is downright terrifying. Especially when surrounding the tragedy is glaring evidence that the power of words can be used to lethal effect. No, I was not excited to preach today at all. And I wondered what I could possibly speak into this community today—a liberal, leftist pastor into a more conservative congregation. We are an older congregation with few young folk to lend their hands. I have come to know you as well as you know me. And just like in any family I know there are certain words and phrases that will close your ears. A dedicated rant about the dangers of the vitriolic right would satisfy many of my friends, and frankly it would feel good to my own soul—to burn off my anger, fear, and horror at yesterday’s events in righteous passion. But I cannot see how it would help you as a congregation to better understand the world or God’s will for all of us as a community.

Last week, while I was in Philadelphia, I parked next to a run down building and noticed the door that is on the front of your bulletin.
I was intensely curious about this door—what did it lead to? Did someone live inside? Was the whole roof collapsed? Were there treasures left behind? I was intrigued by this broken, slightly ajar door, but I didn’t have the courage to look inside. And I was glad I didn’t, because a minute later a man and a dog ducked into the door. I would have been intruding on someone’s home.

The door reminded me of the scripture from Revelation 3:19, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” The image of the door stayed with me all week and into this morning as I wrote this sermon. I imagined Jesus coming upon the door and seeing it busted up and slightly ajar. Would he go in? He said open the door and he would enter—but really, this door? And then I thought of how sometimes we don’t just close Jesus out, we shut him in. Perhaps Jesus is waiting in that jumbled mess of despair and hope that serves as a home to a man and a dog—waiting for us to dare to open that door. In Revelation this passage comes after seven admonitions to seven cities. The cities are called to account for their sins: abandoning works of love, false teachings, stumbling blocks to the faith, for lacking conviction. Yet the admonitions are offered in love. Christ comes to the imperfect, busted down doors of those cities and knocks. All he asks is to be let in so he might eat with us. My study Bible explains:
The Christ who walks in the midst of his churches here finds himself excluded from one of them, and he wants to enter. The picture is set in a corporate, churchly context. The invitation is to share in the joy of the final messianic banquet, with overtones of the Eucharist, which already anticipates the final celebration.
Somehow our response as a church to the shootings yesterday has something to do with this image of Christ knocking at the door and longing to enter, to share with us, to linger with us. I do not speak of solutions for the country or the left or the right or the town of Tucson, because I am speaking to you here today as a community in New Jersey—a tiny church of 25 people or so. Older, less physically able, tired, with fewer resources than we have ever had before, what are we able to offer? Yet Christ comes knocking on this door as much as he does that door in Philadelphia. We must find a way to make small shifts. That shooting could have happened here just as easily. What small, systemic and individual, changes will we we make in ourselves and our church to provide for a more peaceful and loving future?

I turn to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, in part because this letter too was written in admonition and love. But also in part because of the language of the day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night—slipping in through busted doors and unlocked windows, arriving when we least expect it. It reminded me of that door again. Paul says to the community to wait—to stay awake and sober, for we are people of the day. And he says to not be afraid—that we are covered in the breastplate of faith and love and a helmet made of the hope of salvation. This is normally language I find distasteful, but what I hear today is a language of risk. I hear today words that assure us that we may go forward in risk to love others, even when it is frightening to do so, because we are covered in faith and love and hope. We may continue to serve others who frighten us. We may wash feet we find disgusting. We may serve public office at the risk of our lives. For we have faith and hope and love. This is not to say that nobody else has that assurance—I do not speak for their traditions. I speak for ours—we may risk and know that if we lose our lives we have still loved. I read here that in our tiny community we may risk to love one another deeper and to create a house of worship in which Christ is welcome to eat with no hassle.

Paul says to the Thessalonians “encourage one another and build up each other.” We ought to do that! And then he says to go further. Be at peace among ourselves. Admonish the idlers. Encourage the faint-hearted. Help the weak. Be patient with all of them. Is there not a role for all of us bound up in this tragedy in Tucson? Idlers, faint-hearted, the weak. Let us be patient! If we call out one another, let us remember to do so with care. Paul says further, “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” How might our own church and family life change if we refused to repay evil with evil, tit for tat? Rejoice always, pray without ceasing! Offer thanksgiving for our very lives—this is what we are called to do as a church community.

And finally, do not quench the Spirit. Do not quench the Spirit, beloveds! What kind of place would this be if we were known as a place where the Spirit could not be quenched? If the spirit of each of as was called to participate in the Divine and we promised one another that we would not quench the fire within? What might we accomplish together if we paid heed to the Spirit’s movement among us, promising to seek to do good to one another and all. What if this was a place of worship dedicated to welcoming Christ in our midst. What would that look like?

And what does that have to do with the murder of six people in Tucson? I have to believe it has something to do with it. I have to believe that the small shifts we are capable of here in Mt. Laurel will matter, that the love we offer each other will spread from here. I believe that because it is what we are capable of. I believe that because it is what we are scripturally called to do. Love one another and do not quench the Spirit. So be it. So then, may the God of peace sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The oen who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. Amen.