The Rev. Rob Schenck
Today begins Advent, what I call, the “CHRIST-mas” season, commemorating the first coming of Christ at Bethlehem, and anticipating His Second Coming at the consummation of the age. Backward and forward, the focus is: The Light of the World, Jesus Christ the Lord.
Our lesson today speaks of one that…“will execute justice and righteousness,” as a result a people, “will be saved,” and, in the end, all will be reminded, “The LORD is our righteouness.”
This is what Christmas is about: God’s loving intervention in sinful human conflict, bringing about a just and right resolution, saving us—and reminding us—that it is our Lord alone who accomplishes this.
Now, in seminary, I was trained to title my messages, so, I’m calling this one, “God and Guns: A Christmas Sermon.” —Please give me a few minutes to make sense of it.
This beautiful season of Advent is marked by hope, peace, and, of course, God’s presence.
There will, as always, be those things that are contrary to the spirit of the season: We saw it on Friday in Colorado Springs: Senseless violence, terror, the pain of lost loved ones. There will always be wars, disease, famine, poverty, imprisonment—alienation, marginalization, and isolation.
There’s also a growing tension in America that seems to me to contradict the very message of Advent: It’s a hopelessness about the now and future—and a fear of others—especially of the stranger—the “foreigner.”
The response by many to this despair and fear—including by a large number of my fellow Evangelicals—is to arm themselves—and, in doing so, to prepare to shoot people dead. I’ve lately been with pastors who now arm themselves in the pulpit, ready to shoot. And, because my community is one of the least supportive of restrictions on how weapons may be obtained and who may obtain them, I’ve taken this matter as a serious, prayerful concern.
For me, this arming up, especially in the church, is not a policy issue; it’s a theological crisis, because it’s about who—or what—we will turn to for salvation.
For self-described Bible-believing Christians like me, there is only One Lord and One Savior: Jesus Christ the Righteous.
But before some tune me out—please let me explain how this affects my approach to this very sensitive subject.
There’s a backstory to my presence in this pulpit —and it’s not because I’m a great orator or famous preacher. Chances are before this morning, you had never heard of me.
I’m here because Bishop Budde listened to a conversation I had on the radio about Christians and guns. The Bishop later attended a screening of a film in which I explore the subject and subsequently invited me to preach today. I’m honored to do so.
The film, “The Armor of Light,” is a documentary by award-winning producer—now director—Abigail Disney, who’s here today—as is her film, which will be shown in Perry Auditorium following this service.
(By the way, you may have noticed in the collect there’s a reference to “The Armor of Light,” from Romans 13:12, on which the film’s title is based, “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”—It wasn’t a set-up; the prayer was selected long ago, and was actually a surprise to the Bishop.)
Back to the film: My cooperation with Abby’s project was unlikely. We’re very different:
I’m a born-again Jew, raised in a liberal family, and became a conservative in adulthood. She was baptized Catholic, raised in a conservative Irish-American family, and became a liberal in adulthood.
My entire adult life has been organized around religion, the church, and evangelism. Abby left the church at 18, and stayed away from organized religion until recently.
I’ve spent nearly 30 years as an ardent pro-life advocate; She’s spent the same amount of time as an ardent pro-choice advocate.
A few years ago, Abby and I would have met only across a police tape at a demonstration. But she reached out to me from across that divide and I reciprocated, and we formed a great friendship.
Abby posed a question to me: How can Evangelicals be pro-life and pro-gun?
I prayerfully took that on, searching my heart, combing the Scriptures, and talking to my colleagues about it. All of this can be seen in “The Armor of Light.”
What Abby did through her film—and what I’ve attempted to do in my investigation—has been to create a safe space where all voices can be heard and honored. Shouting, finger pointing, lecturing—have not helped us to find a solution to the conundrum of balancing personal liberty with moral responsibility.
Instead of engaging in heated debate, I’ve pursued this problem as an urgent spiritual matter—as a moral question—as an ethical crisis.
I’ve expressed my concern about a coarsening of Christian culture—a move away from the Second Great Commandment, love of neighbor—to suspicion of—and maybe even contempt for neighbor; a move away from respect for the sanctity of EVERY human life, to respect for only SOME human lives.
In my opinion, this move threatens a religious syncretism that finds salvation in something other than God.
Lucy McBath, the other subject in Abby’s film, is a black woman and the mother of Jordan Davis, gunned down outside a convenience store by Michael Dunn, a white, middle-aged software contractor who complained that 17-year old Jordan and his three friends were playing their music too loud. When the young men refused to turn down the volume, Dunn said he became frightened and shot at the unarmed teenagers, later defending his deadly actions under Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground law.
Lucy implored me to speak out on this turning to deadly force, particularly on the part of Christians—at one point saying, “We’ve replaced God with our guns.” That got to me, because whenever we replace God with anything, the result is idolatry.
Evangelicals like me proclaim Jesus Christ as the only One that can save, in every sense. Yet, when it comes to moral questions about personal defense, it seems we turn too quickly to earthly authorities: politicians, media personalities, special interest groups, or even to objects—like guns.
I’ve asked my fellow believers if we have transferred our devotion, our trust, our sense of security, from the heavenly to the earthly, from the divine to human contrivances. Have we traded—as theologians put it— the ultimate for the penultimate?
That downward turn, from God to man, from sacred to secular, would set up a false God, enshrouding us in spiritual darkness.
Light and darkness form a familiar motif throughout the Bible, including in the Christmas story: The light of a star—presumably in the dark night sky—guided the Magi to the Christ-child; The luminous glory of the Lord stunned the shepherds guarding their flock in the dark of night.
Jesus is described as the embodiment of light. John opens His gospel referring to Christ as “The true light that gives light to everyone.”
The darkness of idolatry presents a temptation to move away from the light of Christ. And when someone takes a lethal weapon into that kind of darkness—as we saw in Colorado—the potential for mayhem increases exponentially.
In a moment of rage—or fear—or desperation—a pistol, a semi-automatic rifle—presents a quick way to resolve perceived problems.
In my pastoral capacity, I’m concerned some Christians take their cues on the paramount question of deadly force not from the Bible—but from secular sources: Their reading of the Constitution— Supreme Court decisions—state law— even fundraising letters.
These are not sources of moral, ethical, or spiritual light. The Psalmist says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
To my Evangelical brothers and sisters: In respecting the Second Amendment, we must be careful not to break the Second Commandment!
Ultimate answers to the difficult question of God and guns will be found among the answers to all the great questions of life, in God’s Word, the Bible; and in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, “the light of all mankind.”
And to all of us—gun owners, pacifists; liberals, conservatives, left and right:
Advent, CHRIST-mas, is a perfect time to decide whom we will ultimately look to for salvation:
(?) A God of our own making? (?)Or the Christ revealed to us in Holy Scripture—born as Immanuel; who died for us on the Cross, rose again, and who knocks at the door of our hearts?
Who will ultimately save us? Jesus, or something else? Christ or a Glock?
Will our salvation be of our own making, or will it be of, “The Lord our Righteousness?”
Merry CHRIST–mas. Amen.