Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Pentecost
June 19, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
So there I was, standing on a street corner in front of a lively gay bar on Bourbon Street, in the heart of the French Quarter. My friends Brandon and Reggie had just gotten married and wanted to celebrate with their friends in one of their favorite places in the city. Our party blended into the street life around us: we were men and women, gay and straight, drunk and… not yet drunk… just looking to celebrate with our friends. Reggie was passing around a bottle of his favorite whiskey, but what we were really tasting was a foretaste of the kingdom of Heaven. As Saint Paul describes it, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Crowds passed by, categories dissolved, and a dance party broke out in the intersection in front of us. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, everyone was getting along and the joy was greater than the sum of its parts. On that street corner, on that night, in that city, it didn’t seem like anything bad could happen.
Maybe I should have known better. Another gay bar in the same neighborhood was the site of a deadly arson attack that claimed 32 lives in 1973. That stood as the record for the greatest number of deaths in an attack on a gay club in American history until the shooting at Pulse, in Orlando, one week ago. That shooting has received so much media coverage that I hardly need to talk about the mechanics of the attack. Who among us hasn’t been bombarded with sickening details, which add up to an event so monstrous as to test the limit of our ability to conceive of it. And worse, every aspect of the attack seems to bring up another one of the demons that torments our society: intolerance, condemnation, ostracism, mental illness, domestic violence, gun violence, terrorism, radicalism in the name of religion. Each of them is vexing on its own; the combination, in its toxic synergy, feels like more than we can bear. Until we realize that they have a common source, and a common response.
When Jesus met a man who was afflicted by many demons, he did not waste time finding out the characteristics of each one. He knew the truth. They all shared a common origin: a hostile rejection and ongoing rebellion against the love of God. And so Jesus also knew they could not endure the presence of that love. The detail of the demons begging Jesus to enter the swine, and his granting the request, has always puzzled me. It’s true that they represented spiritual uncleanness, and offer a convenient narrative opportunity to get the local residents involved in the story, but why would Jesus grant the demons’ request? The only theory I have is that he wanted to show them just how vast God’s love and compassion are, that they can even apply to God’s most entrenched enemies, and perhaps that humiliated them even further.
That’s just speculation, but I know a couple of things for sure. First, I know our country is afflicted by many demons, and just like the supernatural demons in Luke’s story, our social and cultural demons prefer to do their damage slowly, from the inside out, ravaging lives and souls on a long-term basis, avoiding showing their full, true nature until a ripe moment of confrontation. Yet the damage, the symptoms, are visible for all who care enough to look at the afflicted one. None of this is to excuse or mitigate the Pulse shooter. If anything, my goal is to convince you that no one has completely clean hands in this. Because underlying all the demons of our society is a breathtaking lack of compassion, and we have all been guilty of that at one time or another.
The shooter himself appears to have been transformed by a lack of compassion. The shooter’s family apparently imposed a harsh worldview on him, which created a volatile poison when he internalized it and it collided with feelings it condemned. If instead they had shown him unconditional love, it seems unlikely that he would have turned murderous. He may have been inspired by the doubly-inaccurately-named Islamic State and its violent hate, but even if that’s true, let’s not give them too much credit. They didn’t make him. Their poison was available on the Internet for anyone who was interested. The killer was all-American, born and raised. But born and raised into what?
Florida had been hostile to gay people long, long before the Pulse shooting. Orlando makes us think of gay-friendly Disney, but among the states, Florida is a laggard on gay rights, currently and historically. Florida law still allows housing discrimination, employment discrimination, and public accommodation discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and homosexual activity between consenting adults was illegal in Florida until 2003, and not because the people demanded it, not because the legislature became enlightened, but only because the Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Texas. Florida’s law is still on the books, it just can’t be enforced. But while America is more tolerant now than it used to be, we still have a long way to go. I’m glad that police now protect gay gathering places instead of raiding them, but the fact that they have to protect them speaks volumes.
And lest we get too comfortable with ourselves in progressive, inclusive Massachusetts, anti-gay sentiment is alive and well here, no matter what our laws say. Just a few days ago I was riding the T home from a baseball game with a male clergy friend when another rider interrupted our conversation to tell us how “gay” everything about it was. He was a drunk idiot and easily deterred, but not so easily forgotten. Where you least expect it, you can find evil, and it can find you. That includes within yourself. So don’t forget the root of the problem.
A wise man recently told me, “More and more I realize that one can’t do anything without a community of support especially a community of faith… I have learned that grief comes on in some very unexpected ways and one must be open to that intrusion and respond, not bury it. I am surrounded by some wondrous folks who help me, but I do miss the ones who have died that helped me in ways no one else has to date. That acknowledgement helps. And then there is the work we choose to do. It doesn’t lessen the angst of loss, but offers other ways to continue and grow.” That was our own Rick Britton. And he’s right. Grief is an unexpected presence in our experience, both because it can happen when we least expect it, and because it can happen in people, places, and ways we don’t expect. And good and holy responses to grief must also come the same diversity.
While the shooting was still breaking news, people of every political persuasion were already using it to advance whatever agenda or position they were trying to advance before. Yes, there were outpourings of sympathy, but also disgusting opportunism and speculation that betrayed not just a lack of respect for people who disagree, but a lack of desire for any kind of understanding or relationship with them. I’m not saying we can’t make Trump jokes, don’t get me wrong, I love them. I am saying that Christians don’t get to make our enemies into demons. Like the shooter and his crime, Trump and his fearmongering and hatemongering aren’t just destructive in and of themselves, but also symptoms of serious social problems which deserve our compassion. Trump is a buffoon, but the suffering and conflict he reveals are deep and widespread. He only got where he is because our brothers and sisters are emotionally and financially insecure after years of job losses and dismissive messages. For so long they have heard, “we have no need of you,” we shouldn’t be surprised that they embrace a candidate who embraces them.
If a rich narcissist like Trump can reach out, for calculated reasons, to poor conservatives, who are in many ways completely unlike him, can we love them, who have known many of the same sufferings we have known, as an expression of who we truly are? Jesus showed the world that love always wins, especially love for those who are hardest to love. Jesus loved all of humanity, but especially those whom the world had given up on and rejected, especially those who were scary, especially his enemies. If we are his followers, we know how to follow him, by following his example of deep compassion, which revealed the very heart of God.
That’s another thing I know. God’s love is the only answer to the troubles of this world, the only thing greater than them, our only hope. God was there when the Marine guard at Pulse, a Muslim, was ushering dozens of patrons to safety. God was there when the police stopped the massacre. God was there when the wounded were treated, when the bereaved were comforted, when the departed reached the threshold of heaven. God’s compassion is great, and it extends to all. So we must have compassion for the victims, and for our LGBTQ family and friends and all who feel unsafe in the wake of the shooting, but also for those who are hard to love. That doesn’t mean agreeing with them, it just means seeing them as brothers and sisters who have borne their own grief, and suffering souls in need of healing, and children of God, and most of all, recognizing that Jesus has gone before us by including them in his compassion. We can’t eliminate every demon from this world, but we can choose to become allies and agents with the power that can, and will, cast them out. And like others whom Jesus has transformed with love, we can go out from the encounter sharing that love with the world.
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