This morning’s homily is the result of much thought and prayer to a post an acquaintance of mine from High School posted on his wall last week. It is written in the form of an open letter which I have sent to him privately through Facebook.
This week I have spent a great amount of time reflecting on your post from last Saturday. I have been especially focused on the lyrics you posted which stated, “ I have a gun in my truck and I am still a man.” It is hard to fathom that we were raised in the same community and graduated from the same high school and yet have very different understandings as to what manhood may look like.
Don’t worry, I am not about to write a diatribe on the evils of guns. In fact, I am a firm believer in our second amendment right to bear arms, but I do not believe having a gun in the trunk of my car makes me anymore of a man or makes me feel any more safe or more empowered.
I have many clergy colleagues who own guns, I know this, not because they ever discuss having guns, but because they talk about the joy of living in Central New York and the vast opportunities for hunting wild life.
Maureen, my wife of nearly twenty-eight years, has an uncle who retired as a Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Police Department. I know for a fact Uncle Jimmie carried a side arm throughout his career and, when off duty, his gun was stored at his house. But he never mentioned it or discussed it in my or anyone else’s presence. And I believe having his gun in the house was more of a burden than a privilege. According to Maureen, as soon as Jimmie would arrive home from work, he immediately went to his bedroom, took off his sidearm, locked the trigger and then put the gun in a lock box. With that kind of security, I doubt the gun allowed him to feel more secure in his home.
In the thirty plus years I have known Uncle Jimmie, he has never talked about having to use his weapon. What he seems most proud of from his career was the work he did in community relations. He loved to talk about the clergy and community leaders he met and worked with to develop trust between the communities he served and the police department in an effort to prevent crime and avoid the need for force to ensure safety. Jimmie believed the best way to empower others to prevent violence came through trust and cooperation, not the use of force or fear.
But then again, the discussion our nation is having around guns has little to do with safety and more to do with the need for power as individuals. As I read about last week’s mass murder in California and compared it with what I remember of other similar situations, one of the common themes on the part of the killer is a sense of powerlessness.
Somehow power and the ability to instill fear in others has become synonymous in today’s culture. Through my study and faith as a Christian, I have found the opposite to be true.
Soon after I was born, my parents, through the sacrament of Baptism, committed my life to God in Christ. As a young man I re-affirmed this commitment through the sacrament of Confirmation and then as an adult found a calling to lead others who wished to live in accordance with what it means to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. For me this means living my life based on what Christ taught and how he lived his life as an example for us all.
It seems what Jesus taught is counter intuitive to what we believe empowers us today. In the Sermon on the Mount, the largest collection of his teachings, Jesus not only told his followers to turn the other cheek, but to actually love our enemies, to pray for them. He told us to forgive others 70 times 7 times. And he tells us if we are to follow him we must be willing to pick up our cross (the symbol of torture and death) and then follow. His teachings on love and forgiveness were nothing new. The prophets Isaiah and Micah proclaim the following,
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3 He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; 4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
What makes Christ a wonderful and authentic teacher is how he lived what he taught. In Matthew 26 we are told at the time of his arrest, the crowds came after him with clubs and swords, one of his followers drew his own sword and cut off the ear of a slave. Jesus’ response was not to thank him, instead he commanded his follower to put away his sword, for those who live by the sword, die by the sword. Before Pilot, while being questioned he chose not to defend himself, but quietly frustrated the prefect by showing no fear and by not cowering to his authority. As I have studied the trial through the years, it has become clear that Jesus held the power despite Pilate’s earthly authority. Then in the final moments before his death, Jesus taught us his greatest lesson, what forgiveness truly looks like. “Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing”
Being able to live a life of forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult part of following Christ. Even as one who is ordained, I struggle with the ability to forgive every day. There is something soothing and justifiable about anger that makes us want to hold on to it. However, as hard as it is to believe, being able to forgive is more empowering than being angry or seeking revenge. Dr. Marie Fortune in her research with victims of sexual assault discovered that until a victim could forgive his or her assailant, the assailant continued to hold power over their lives. Forgiving, she says, allows the victim to let go of the past, the anger and to move from victimhood to survivorship and the ability to move beyond the abuse of the past.
This week I had the opportunity to read, Left to Tell, a memoir by Immaculee Ilibagiza. It is her story of survival and faith as she endured three months in a cramped 4X6 bathroom hidden with seven other women from the Interahamwe, the foot soldiers of the Hutu forces in Rwanda during the genocide of the Tutsi’s. Her primary message to fellow survivors is that they need to forgive in order to live again. Many times throughout the book she writes that it was only when she was able to find forgiveness for those who killed her family and wanted her dead that she found freedom and hope while confined in the bathroom and ultimately the courage to continue living.
After returning to her home and learning of how cruelly her mother and brother had been tortured and dismembered before being killed, Immaculee writes the following.”
I tossed and turned for hours, I knew the devil was tempting me- that he was leading me away from the light of God, from the freedom of His forgiveness. I could feel the weight of my negative thoughts dragging me away from the light that had guided me through the darkness. I never felt lonelier than I did that night. God was my truest friend, and these feelings were a wall between us. I knew that my thoughts caused Him pain, and that knowledge tortured me.
I rolled out of bed and got down on my knees. “forgive my evil thoughts, God,” I prayed. “Please. . .as You always have, take this pain from me and cleanse my heart. Fill me with the power of Your love and forgiveness. Those who did these horrible things are still Your children, so let me help them, and help me to forgive them. Oh, God, help me to love them.
A sudden rush of air flooded my lungs. I heaved a heavy sigh of relief, and my head dropped back on the pillow. I was at peace again. Yes, I was sad-deeply sad- but my sadness felt good. I let it embrace me and found that it was clean, with no tinge of bitterness or hatred. I missed my family desperately, but the anger that had gripped me like a returning malignancy was gone.
The people who’d hurt my family had hurt themselves even more, and they deserved my pity.
As I read this passage I was reminded of another great man, St. Francis of Assisi, in his early years he served as a warrior for the Assisian Army and later found greater power by following Christ and living a life of prayer and forgiveness. In his most popular prayer he writes, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me so love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith.”
On Sunday, June 1st, I will be baptizing a man and his three daughters. There is nothing more wonderful than to witness an adult commit his or her life to Christ. George is someone I have known for nearly two years. If he has a gun in his trunk, I do not know about it and if he does, it does not seem that important to him. What George seems to value the most are his children and his family, he works hard to be a good provider and a nurturing father. Like all of us, he struggles with his own demons, but what he seems to have found these past two years is, following Christ somehow makes the struggles a little easier and worth fighting.
In closing, my friend, as I think about the lyrics you posted last week, I would definitely rewrite the words. My words would be something to the effect of, “with Christ in my heart, I have found the courage to forgive and to live without fear, and I am still a man.