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A Sermon Preached on National Gun Violence Sabbath
The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, Trinity Cathedral
Sunday, December 13, 2015
Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

What shall we do? That’s the question raised by those whom John the Baptist called a “brood of vipers.” They were ordinary folk – like you and me – seeking God in the wilderness.

What shall we do? It’s a question we ask many times a day. What shall I wear? What shall I eat? What shall I watch, see, touch, or feel?

I don’t know about you, but I find myself asking that same question almost every morning as I read the paper. What shall we do about climate change, poverty, racism, immigration, terrorism, and gun violence? The problems facing our world, our nation, and even our city are overwhelming.

The first century must have felt overwhelming to John’s audience. They were burdened by taxation, hunger, poverty, religious oppression, and disease. To top it off, they believed that the Lord was coming so folks had better get ready.

John’s audience asked: What shall we do? If our birthright as sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah – our direct lineage to God as chosen people – wasn’t enough to be assured of the promise of salvation, what then shall we do?

John was clear and direct. If you have two coats, give one away; if you have food, share it; if you’re a tax collector, don’t cheat; and if you’re a soldier, don’t abuse your power. In other words, act faithfully and responsible in your daily lives. But how do we apply John’s teaching in our common life?

Tomorrow marks the 3rd anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting
It feels like just yesterday that I stood in this pulpit trying to make sense of a senseless mass shooting that followed on the heels of a similar one at Chardon High School, where some of our own youth attend. Charlestown, Chattanooga, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino, Columbine, Blacksburg, Tucson, Roseburg, Newtown, and Chardon – so many senseless shootings, so many innocent lives lost. What shall we do?

This morning on National Gun Violence Sabbath, with clergy around the nation, I find myself asking once again: what shall we do to reduce gun violence in our country, an issue made even more complicated by the escalating threat of domestic terrorism?

Did you know that during the first decade of this century, 335,609 Americans were shot and killed, a total that exceeds the population of St. Louis, Pittsburgh or Orlando, a number that is only 60,000 less than the City of Cleveland?

Some 32,000 people killed by guns every year – an average of 92 deaths per day. Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns that died in all U.S. wars. More preschoolers are shot dead each year than police officers in the line of duty. In fact, guns are the leading cause of death due to injury in the US.

Every year, more than 130,000 people are shot, and it happens everywhere. There’s a web site called the trace. It’s “an independent nonprofit news organization dedicated to expanding coverage about guns in the United States.” ( You can go to this website and plug in an address, and it will tell you within a one mile radius how many shootings (fatal and non-fatal) there have been in the past year. Out of curiosity, I plugged in a few addresses:
The location of the new home we’re building in Detroit Shoreway
6 shootings (1 fatal)
Judson Manor in University Circle
9 shootings (5 fatal)
Our former home on the lake in Euclid
2 shootings
Our home in Cleveland Heights
2 shootings (1 fatal)
Trinity Cathedral
14 shootings (3 fatal)

There’s no escaping the gun violence epidemic in our country.

In 2012, following the Sandy Hill shooting, Gary Hall, Dean of the National Cathedral wrote: “We have become numb to these shootings. We see the reports on the news, the media swarms in to cover it for a few days, and there are perfunctory statements about how we can never let it happen again. Then Newtown happened, and it jolted our conscience and shook this nation from its moral complacency. We reached a point where inaction was no longer acceptable.”

Unfortunately, three years later, the situation hasn’t substantially changed. In many states (including Ohio), it’s easier to buy a gun than register to get a drivers license. Yet, more individuals are killed by guns than in car accidents. And it’s really not about mass slaughters; it’s about everyday, individual shootings. Sixty percent of all gun deaths are suicides, 38 percent are individual homicides, and only 2 percent are a result of mass shootings.

No matter where we live, work, play or pray, we need to realize that a shooting can happen to someone we know or love, even to ourselves. Gun violence is something we have in common. However, as Heidi Haverkamp, an Episcopal priest in the suburbs of Chicago, wrote in a recent blog for The Christian Century: “What we do not have in common is how we feel about guns. Two distinct cultures are pitted squarely against each other: gun control culture and Second Amendment culture.”

This past week, The New Yorker cover depicted a man and a woman shopping for guns with a shopping cart as if they are at the grocery store. Glancing at it, Emily mused that maybe our nation is nearing the tipping point on our attitude about gun violence and our resolve to do something about it. Maybe she’s right. According to a recent Gallup poll, 55 percent of Americans favor stricter gun control regulations. The proof will be in the pudding of upcoming elections and legislation.
So…returning to the question posed by John the Baptist: if we live in a nation with two distinct cultures about guns, what are we to do? In Leviticus 19, we are commanded, “Do not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.”

As Nicholas Kristof suggested in a recent New York Times essay: “What we need is an evidence-based public health approach — the same model we use to reduce deaths from other potentially dangerous things around us, from swimming pools to cigarettes. We’re not going to eliminate guns in America, so we need to figure out how to coexist with them.” (NYT, 10/3/15) As a starter, we need to use statistics to comprehend the scale of the problem and advocacy to encourage safer guns.

IAF (the coalition of community organizations that includes Greater Cleveland Congregations) has been working on a national campaign called “Don’t Stand Idly By” to do just that – calling on law enforcement officials and gun manufacturers to build a demand for safer guns. On a local level, GCC is calling for a countywide law enforcement initiative consisting of federal, county and city authorities to halt the pipeline of illegal guns and hold accountable those responsible for their flow into our neighborhoods.
The rationale is that we can’t keep the weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists, but we can make it more difficult for an individual to buy a gun, or use a gun that he didn’t legally purchase, and thus reduce the day-to-day gun violence in our communities. But there’s more.
John the Baptist talked about cutting out the roots of trees that bear bad fruit and throwing them into the fire. I think the prophet is challenging us to go the root of the issues that face our world, including the roots of gun violence. When we start cutting away at this diseased tree, we find a complexity of roots: poverty, race, power, anger, fear, and maybe even the meaning of our constitutional right to bear arms. We need to have a national conversation about guns, and the conversation begins with you and me. I have family and friends who own guns. Some of you own guns. I’m not saying guns are bad. I’m saying we need to talk about it. Ninety-eight percent of gun violence does not come from terrorists. It is coming from within our own communities.

From a prison cell, the apostle Paul writes: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” 
You and I can begin a conversation with our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family to talk about violence, to talk about conflict, to talk about freedom and to talk about guns. And we can do it as gentle people. That might sound naïve, but it’s not. If we want change, we must become the change we seek.

The willingness to enter the conversation with grace and gentleness is part of the solution. We have to help move the tipping point by engaging the issue. Avoiding the topic with those who disagree won’t do any good. The time has come for people of good faith to speak out and call for gun reform.

Paul also writes: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
As a person of faith, I think part of the answer to “What shall we do” lies in prayer.
As we call for gun safety, we need to pray for:
Victims of gun violence – may they and their loved ones find healing and consolation, and will help break cycle of violence;
Owners of guns – may they be responsible in their use and storage of guns and ammunition;
Gun sellers and gun buyers – may they be honest and wise in their business:
Legislators – may they be courageous and wisdom in addressing gun legislation;
First responders – may they be smart and honest in how they deal with guns.
Our nation – may we find a way through our divisions to a place of unity.

No, we can’t really rid our families, communities, nation or our world of all violence. Unfortunately, violence is part of the human condition. In many ways, John the Baptist was correct in calling us “a brood of vipers.” However, we can and we must tame and harness our violence, and the time and place to start is here and now.

Let us pray:

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.