A Sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
November 12, 2017
with thanks to Rev. Sarah Stewart and Wikipedia for the inspiration
Sermons are better seen.
I want us to imagine a world in which weapons of war are transformed into tools for healing and harvesting.
What better day to imagine this world than the Sunday of Veteran’s day weekend; the day we welcome 15 new members into our church. Thank you, Veterans, for your sacrifices for our country’s freedom. Thank you, new members, for agreeing to walk hand and hand with us in the interest of bringing about earth as it is in heaven.
Our scripture from Micah talks about that heaven on earth: the day when the people of the world shall beat their swords into ploughshares and beat their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
I had a conversation at dinner a couple of weeks ago with one of our beloved veterans, Paul Jones, who said, “there is no one who desires peace in the world more than a soldier. We understand the cost of war profoundly, and war is the last thing we want.” They have walked in the darkest valley in the shadow of death.
Especially for our veteran’s sake, may we continue to pray for a world without war.
Beat swords into ploughshares.
This concept has literal applications, I found in my very scholarly Wikipedia research.
After World War II, military surplus AFVs were sometimes converted into bulldozers, agricultural, and logging tractors. French farmers sometimes used modified versions of the obsolete FT-17 tank, and similar vehicles, based on the T-34 tank, remain in widespread use in the former USSR.
Weapons of war transformed to harvest new crops. Death transformed to life.
From the 1970s onwards, several anti-war musicians play guitars made from military surplus weapons. Jamaican reggae star Pete Tosh famously owned a Stratocaster built around an M-16 rifle.
Weapons of war transformed into music; to beauty. Death transformed to life.
Nitrogen mustard, developed from the chemical weapon mustard gas developed in World War I, became the basis for the world's first chemotherapy drug, mustine, developed through the 1940s.
Weapons of war transformed to heal. Death transformed to life.
Imagine a world in which all weapons have been turned into tools: for harvesting and building, healing and hope. Imagine a world in which the human tendency to tear down is transcended by a divine commitment to build up.
That’s God’s world, our scriptures remind us. Death transformed to life.
We need this now, O God who makes all things new. We are in this cycle right now in America that disturbs all of us, rocks our sense of safety, elevates our cynicism and apathy, and makes us feel hopeless and without agency.
There have been 382 mass shootings so far in America in 2017. 539 dead, just from mass shootings alone this year. On an average day, 93 Americans are killed with guns.
We are growing numb, helpless and tired.
We have the mass shooting problem in America down to a melancholy script. Headlines shout something about the latest massacre being the deadliest whatever in that venue’s history. We all nervously check to see the race and religion of the shooter to see if the media and politicians will declare that it was an act of terrorism or a “lone wolf” with a mental health problem. Politicians tweet out thoughts and prayers. Liberals declare, “enough of thoughts and prayers. Do something to fix it.” And conservatives declare, “this is not the time to politicize a tragedy.” Gun sales skyrocket for a little while. People fight about whether we have a mental health crisis or a gun crisis or a domestic violence crisis or a radicalized religion crisis, or a crisis of toxic masculinity or all of the above. Nothing is done to change anything. Then it all disappears into the air until the next mass shooting, which will happen so soon that at it will fail to even register properly on our shock and horror radars.
This latest mass shooting--though it happened in Texas--feels close to home to us, though. Twenty-six people mowed down by a man wearing tactical gear and carrying some sort of semi-automatic machine gun. Twenty-six killed and twenty more injured in a small town church during worship in Texas last Sunday. Twenty-six killed on a Sunday while we, too, gathered for the same humble purpose in a small town church here in Sterling. All of that gathered congregation in Sutherland Springs are either now dead or wounded. 4% of the town of Sutherland Springs died that day.
This one hit home. Our congregation wrote to me, stopped by, called, expressing fear that it could happen here. Is no place safe? They asked, tears in their eyes. I wonder the same thing, though that is not new for me. I spent the week making church safety plans with defense experts in the congregation and the chief of police. I deeply resent that it has come to this: that our sense of security has been threatened in our safest, open, loving, welcoming place.
This time I decided to flip the mass shooting script. I decided to cross some ideological boundaries to do so. If we are going to do something effective, the words that we use as weapons must be turned into tools of healing and harvesting and hope instead.
We need the humility to start with ourselves.
As many of you can probably guess, my parents are vehemently anti-gun. We weren’t allowed even to have squirt guns at home, or to pull out our “trigger fingers” to pretend to shoot each other. This was harder for my brother than it was for me, since like many boys, he seemed to come out of the womb with the ability to make that machine gun noise I wasn’t biologically programmed for. I lived in New Hampshire, and many of my friends, I’m sure, had guns, but I was blissfully unaware. As an adult, I lived in Boston where all of my friends were liberal professionals. I didn’t know anyone who used a gun there, to hunt or for self-protection or even to shoot skeet. None of that is very practical in the city.
As a result, I know nothing about guns. I have never shot one or even touched one. I have never hunted and killed my own food. I don’t know how to use them as a tool or for self defense. Like so many liberals, I am uneducated about them, naïve about their proliferation, and frankly scared of them. My whole life I have been vehemently for gun control; one of those people who the NRA warns you about.
So this week I sought out my gun-owning beloveds in this congregation. I sought out my conservative beloveds in the congregation. I talked with the police chief, with our veterans, with our defense experts, our second amendment defenders. What I found is that they are just as disturbed, sickened and worried about the proliferation of mass shootings as I am. We described our fears and resignation with tears of rage in our eyes. I learned that they worry that gun control measures might keep us less safe. They listened as I explained my worries that having more guns makes us less safe. One of you even offered to teach me to shoot at the shooting range, and I’m going to take you up on it.
In the course of these conversations, I realized that our desire to keep this congregation and community safe was the primary value we shared in common. We love one another, and we love our children. That’s why. And love is the way forward.
I want us to practice being a people in which the words we have turned into weapons can be transformed into tools of healing and harvesting. Where we listen to understand; where we search for commonalties. Beat swords into ploughshares. Maybe this is what it means to DO SOMETHING.
Nothing brings out the vicious political divide in America like the words “thoughts and prayers” right now. That phrase has come to be associated with performative sympathy and inaction. As if one is either for prayer, or for doing something . As is usual in our country right now, there is no middle way. As a pastor who believes in the power of prayer and who can see that our fervent prayers haven’t stopped the killing, I think we need both. Liberals and conservatives, gun enthusiasts and gun despisers, if I can go shoot guns at a shooting range, you can take one another out for coffee and listen for understanding rather than argument. We can do very hard things.
This week in yesterday’s Keep the Faith column in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, my friend and colleague the Rev. Sarah Stewart told an old joke:
Once upon a time, a man was shipwrecked and flailing around in the sea. He kicked his feet and waved his arms and cried, "O God, save me! I’m going to drown!” And lo and behold, a helicopter spotted the wreckage and flew in low over the man. A ladder uncoiled from the belly of the copter and a rescue worker made his way down. “Grab my hand!” the rescuer shouted.
“No, God will save me!” the man replied. No matter what the rescuer said or did, the man refused to take his hand and be pulled to safety. The rescuer watched in utter dismay as the man slipped beneath the waves.
The man came to his senses in Heaven. Dry, warm, and comfortable, he walked toward God, who was hanging out in God’s favorite chair by the fire. “Hey God!” the man said. “I prayed! I was faithful! Why didn’t you rescue me?!”
“Buddy,” said God, “who did you think sent the flippin’ helicopter?”
And then she wrote this:
This old joke comes to mind when I hear politicians offering their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of gun violence in America. What on earth do they mean? What do they think “prayer” means?
…..Effective prayer is the hallmark of an effective leader. Prayer brings the community together in shared action to contemplate their behavior. Prayer makes open a way that had previously been closed. Prayer is getting up off your knees to settle the differences you have with someone in your community. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul told the church in Thessalonica, and if we are to follow his example, everything we do should be a prayer.”
Hallelujah. Let’s get off our knees and settle differences. Let everything we do be a prayer.
Jesus didn’t pray with his words very much in the Bible. He healed, he sat with, he loved, he fed. He used his hands; his body. He told his disciples to “go and do.” In the parable of the good Samaritan, he tells the lawyer that the one who helps his neighbor is the one who is living God’s commandments. “Go and do likewise,” he says. When he serves communion on the night before he dies, Jesus says “do this in remembrance of me.”
Go and do. Do this. This is how we pray.
So on this Veteran’s Day, on this new member Sunday, I am grateful for this theologically and ideologically diverse congregation where I am pushed to be better every day. I am grateful for our responsible gun owners and our gun-hating lefties, and the middle ground we are capable of finding. That’s where God resides; in the middle.
So when we unite to beat our weaponized words into tools for healing and harvesting love, this is our prayer.
When we listen to those we disagree with for understanding and shared values, this is our prayer.
When we look for solutions across the ideological divide to end violence, this is our prayer.
When we work for peace among nations, this is our prayer.
When we serve our country in war or in our community’s soup kitchens, this is our prayer.
When we gather to strengthen our souls on Sunday morning despite our fear and apathy and exhaustion because we know we are better together, this is our prayer.
When we feed the hungry and the lonely, this is our prayer.
When we eat soup, break bread, worship, and learn together, this is our prayer.
When we visit the elderly and the infirm, the lonely and mourning, this is our prayer.
When we unite with people brought together not by being like-minded, but like-hearted, this is our prayer.
When we welcome the stranger, this most especially is our prayer. Our wide open doors is a prayer no act of terror can close and lock.
Beloved, unite in the love of God with those you disagree with. Pray without ceasing by going, and doing. Invite someone you disagree with to talk about guns in America. Listen to understand. Be brave enough to imagine together a world in which the words we have turned into weapons have been transformed into tools of healing and harvesting and hope. And surely then goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org