I did not grow up in the church, and up until my first year of college I only went in to churches and synagogues for life events—weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals and the like. The first time I ever went to church on my own was Easter Day, 1968—four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I went for two reasons—first, because I was trying to make sense of Dr. King’s murder, and second because I greatly admired the Yale Chaplain in those days, William Sloane Coffin, Jr. Bill Coffin had been arrested on the steps of the Pentagon months before—along with poet Robert Lowell and the famous baby book writer Dr. Benjamin Spock—and I had heard Coffin speak on several occasions about the intersection of social and religious issues. So on Easter Day, 1968, I made my way across Yale’s Old Campus to Battell Chapel to hear what Dr. Coffin might say on Easter that would help me understand the death of Dr. King.
I remember very little about that first church experience, except for two things. First, they served sherry afterward—a powerful inducement for a college freshman in those days. And second, Coffin’s sermon entirely surprised me. He did, of course, use the sermon time to talk about the King assassination, but he didn’t do so in any conventionally comforting way. “What else,” Coffin asked, “did we think we had a right to expect?” Comparing King’s murder to the events of Good Friday, Coffin intoned, “We never had a right to think it would be any different” with figures like Jesus and King.
Here I was, an 18 year-old kid looking for consolation, and instead of giving me a security blanket the preacher used the gospel to slap me in the face. It was an unforgettable moment, and I owe my life in the church to the spiritual wake up I received that morning. The sherry probably had a little something to do with it, too.
I think about Bill Coffin’s rhetorical question—”What else did we think we had a right to expect?” every time I read or hear today’s gospel. John the Baptist is in prison, and what he’s hearing about Jesus doesn’t exactly sound like what he expected to hear. He sends words by his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
John apparently thought that Jesus would be one kind of Messiah, and he is turning out to be another. John predicted a fiery leader who would use his winnowing fork to separate the wheat from the chaff and then burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. But Jesus didn’t behave the way John expected he would. He didn’t scourge people—he healed them. He didn’t separate people, he brought them together. He didn’t predict damnation so much as universal peace and forgiveness. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” “What else did we think we had a right to expect?”
It has been a year since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and as we observe this anniversary, I find that these two questions frame my perception of the year we have been through. A year ago, I stood in the pulpit and declared my own and this Cathedral’s resolve to stand with and for the victims of gun violence and to use our energies to mobilize the faith community to pressure our legislators for action to curb the epidemic of deaths brought about by guns in America. In the phrase that will no doubt be the opening line of my obituary, I said, “The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.”
A year later, pretty close to nothing has happened. And just last Friday, we saw yet another school shooting, this time in Colorado—again. By the estimates of the Centers for Disease Control, another 32,000 Americans have died by gun violence since December 14, 2012. There have been mass shootings around the country, even in our own Washington D.C. Navy Yard. There has been almost no legislative action in response to these deaths. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” “What else did we think we had a right to expect?”
Last September, Bishop Budde and my wife Kathy and I were present at the memorial service for those killed at the Navy Yard. As with Bill Coffin’s sermon on Easter Day, 1968, I will always remember President Obama’s remarks in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting. The president said, in part:
So these families have endured a shattering tragedy. It ought to be a shock to us all as a nation and as a people. It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation.…
We can’t accept this. As Americans bound in grief and love, we must insist here today there is nothing normal about innocent men and women being gunned down where they work. There is nothing normal about our children being gunned down in their classrooms. There is nothing normal about children dying in our streets from stray bullets. (“Remarks by the President at the Memorial Service for the Victims of the Navy Yard Shooting” September 22, 2013)
Just as I will never forget sitting in Battell Chapel on Easter Day in 1968, I will never forget sitting outdoors on a beautiful September Sunday afternoon at the Washington Marine Barracks listening to the president say those words as the American flag fluttered in the breeze behind him. And I will never forget where I was when I heard tell of the Navy Yard shootings, the Sandy Hook shootings, the Aurora shootings, the Oak Creek Wisconsin shootings. These moments are seared into my memory as I believe they are into yours because, as the president says, “there is nothing normal” about them.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s question with these words:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:2-11)
A year after Sandy Hook, I still believe that the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby. I still believe that you and I people of faith should refuse to tolerate the epidemic of gun violence that is killing our children, our colleagues, our friends. As the church, as the community that gathers around Jesus, we need to remember what we’re actually here for. We’re here, with Jesus, to help the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers be cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead be raised, and the poor receive the good news. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” “What else did we think we had a right to expect?”
What else did we think we had a right to expect? Nothing has happened in a year partially because you and I have not cared enough to make something happen. The passion is all on one side in the gun violence debate. Oh, sure, we care every time there is a tragedy. But we quickly lose interest and turn our attention to other things. We need, my friends, to do better. We need, as the community that lives out the life and promise of Jesus in the world, to be the people bringing good news to a nation and world in the grips of a death-dealing addiction to violence and guns.
One year after Newtown, I ask, as you do, “Why has nothing happened?” And in response I hear not an answer but William Sloane Coffin’s question: “What else did we think we had a right to expect?” If we don’t care at least as much as the gun lobby, if we don’t become, in the president’s words, “obsessed” with curbing gun violence, what right do we have to expect that things will be any different, even after the next mass shooting or wave of urban gun deaths?
Christianity is not only about loving Jesus and knowing God. It is about living out the implications of that love and knowledge. Human beings are precious; that is why we care when they die. And that is why Jesus responds to John’s question not with a list of talking points but with the news of human lives made better. And so for us. On this Third Sunday of Advent, as we move ever closer to Christmas and its proclamation of good news and great joy for all people, I repeat what I said a year ago: the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby. You and I who follow Jesus must continue to stand with and for the victims of gun violence and we must redouble our efforts to help our leaders do the right thing so that our schools, our workplaces, and our streets will be safe places for precious human beings to live out their lives in the fulfillment of Christmas peace and joy.
As Paul said in 2 Corinthians, “We do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1) We will prevail because the cross is finally stronger than the forces set against it. We will prevail because the love and justice and hope and peace at the center of the universe are more powerful than hatred and fear and oppression and violence. One year after Newtown, nothing has happened yet everything has changed. Together let us walk with Jesus and become with him the ones the world is waiting for. I am not giving up, and I ask that you not give up, either. Amen.