Back in the olden days, in the foggy mists of time, when I was growing up and going to church, it always felt like an all-day activity: first Sunday School for an hour, and then church for a second hour. My mom taught Sunday school herself, so we were in our classes while she taught hers. We’d go to coffee hour in between, and then attend the later service for the second hour. I admit that I would have preferred to stay home sometimes—watching cartoons in my pj's—but that was rarely an option.
I was one of those kids that preferred being in the church service itself, over Sunday School classes. Not that I paid attention to the sermons much, but I always appreciated the music and liturgical action. I guess that’s why I do what I do today! One aspect of Sunday School that I really didn’t like was memorization work. We had to memorize lots—the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Ten Commandments. Usually, our teacher would give us a line from the prayer, creed, or one of the commandments that we were supposed to memorize over the coming week. If we did and could recite the line the following week, we’d get a star or something. We don’t emphasize that so much today. But it was the thing then, 30 or 40 years ago. What I really don’t remember from those Sunday School days, though, is if our teachers ever gave us any context or content for what we were learning. You know, did they ever tell us what the prayers or creeds or commandments mean? If they did, it wasn’t in much detail. Mostly, I think it was just memorizing.
When it comes to the Ten Commandments, some of the themes are rather adult—like adultery. We wouldn’t have understood what that was about when kids learning the lines. Though, interestingly, that’s the Commandment Moses is pointing to in the stained-glass window above the altar. It makes you wonder just what the congregation here was dealing with in the 1950s and 60s. Others hit very close to home at any age—like honoring your Father and Mother—my parents loved to emphasize that one at particular moments. And the last one about coveting what it is your neighbor’s used to strike awfully close to home, too. Still does, sometimes.
Further removed from the real-life experience of most of us—whatever our age—is the one commanding us not to murder or kill, depending on the translation. It’s interesting that it’s even included among the top 10 dos and don’ts. The others deal with more every day temptations and struggles, while thankfully for most of us killing another human is beyond the pale. But it must have been something that people struggled with in ancient days. Indeed, any read through the Bible makes clear that the impulse to kill has infected the human heart from the very start—beginning with the brothers Cain and Abel, sons and Adam and Eve; down to Moses—who himself killed an Egyptian; to the tenants in this morning’s gospel parable, reflecting the crucifixion of Jesus himself.
Something in the human heart and soul, some seeds of violence and hatred are so deeply planted and deeply rooted, that God felt the need to inscribe on tablets of stone, for all to see and know, that this is absolutely not how we are called to live. Murder, killing, like adultery, covetousness, and faithlessness are as far from God’s design for human life as anything.
For those of us instilled with the values of faith—whether Christian or Jewish, and doubtless from other traditions as well—this should be obvious. But, of course, it’s not. Increasingly, we seem to live in a society that considers murder and killing ordinary, routine, and even expected, if not exactly okay. Last Sunday’s mass murder, we might even call it a massacre, in Las Vegas, is just the latest example of what has become all too commonplace in the United States over the past years.
Last week it was at a country music festival, last year it was at a gay night club, the year before an African American church in South Carolina during Bible study, and five years ago an elementary school in Connecticut. What’s next? Who’s next? We learned over the past week that the shooter in Las Vegas had also considered a music event in Chicago and even Fenway Park as possible sites for his killing.
Whatever the motivations—whether hatred caused by racism or homophobia, or mental illness that would lead one to target school children and their teachers, or even an indiscriminate hatred of people in general and the perverted thrill of power—it is a manifestation of those seeds of violence, hatred, and division planted in the human heart, and nurtured and watered by a culture, a society, that seeks always to divide people into categories of us vs. them, me vs. you, instead of all of us together.
I’m sure this tendency is found across other nations and societies. Clearly it is, or we wouldn’t find examples of the same actions in scripture, as in this morning’s gospel parable of the tenants in the vineyard killing the owner’s slaves and son. But for some reason, it seems particularly alive and acute here in the United States. Perhaps it’s because the nation was born in the crucible of revolution, with guns drawn and a shot heard around the world. Or perhaps it’s because our early financial system and economy was undergirded by slavery—both in the north and the south—which relied on violence to rip people from their homes, chained them in ships, and then sold them to the highest bidder. Human beings treated like property that you could beat, starve, kill. And perhaps it is because the expansion and flourishing of the nation could only come with the bloody acquisition of land and power at the expense of those native peoples who were here first—pushing them further and further out, starving, killing, and massacring along the way.
Whatever it was or is originally, there is something in our national identity, even still, that seems to idolize violence and even murder. Just consider the fact that inscribed in our American constitution is the right to bear arms. Now, some would argue that the original meaning of that right has been perverted over the years—since in its original context it was focused on the ability of a dispersed populace to organize into a militia, in the event of attack from foreign powers. We don’t need that today, with a proper military and police force and all the rest.
But even if you are of the view that the American right to bear arms is absolute and must be preserved, surely one would have to recognize that the framers of the constitution couldn’t have imagined semi-automatic machine guns that could indiscriminately injure hundreds and kill nearly 60 people in a matter of minutes. After all, the guns they knew were muskets. There is no conceivable reason that an individual should have ready access to such instruments of death and terror. That militaries have and use them are bad enough—also in violation of God’s commandments. But ordinary citizens, people like you and me, with full arsenals in their homes—serving no purpose but the potential murder of fellow citizens, fellow human beings—is to me, beyond comprehension.
I imagine it is beyond comprehension to God as well—the God who spoke through the prophets and came among us in Christ Jesus, to teach us a different way. Indeed, Jesus was himself killed by the powers of evil and death. By the hatred which so infects human hearts. And in his death, Christ showed us the power of love. He showed us the power of life. He showed us that retaliation, armaments, and weapons are not the instruments of human flourishing. The instruments of human flourishing are love and hope and trust. What’s more, in raising Jesus from death, God broke the human cycle of violence and hatred. God showed us, through Jesus, that there is another way, a better way. A way that leads to fullness of life.
As some of you know, I was very briefly in Minnesota over the past week. It was perhaps my shortest trip there ever—just Thursday to Saturday. So, I didn’t have much time for visiting. I went primarily for the meeting of the National Scandinavia Advisory Board at Gustavus Adolphus College, of which I am a member. I can’t go to all the meetings, but I try for one or two a year. At Friday’s meeting, we were joined by a number of students—some who studied in Sweden last year and reported to us on their experience, and others who are from Sweden, studying in Minnesota for the semester or year.
It was particularly interesting to hear of the experience of the Swedish students. They were impressed by how friendly and welcoming everyone is. They universally felt supported in their studies—despite being unprepared for the amount of weekly homework expected of them. But they also said that some of them were worried about coming to the United States, or in some cases, their families were worried about them coming here. Because there is a perception across the world that the United States is a dangerous place. That people are randomly and routinely shot here. We think of the US as a place of liberty, freedom, and hope—the land of the free—and yet, others from other lands worry that they might even be shot as they step off the airplane upon arrival here.
Thankfully, we know that would be highly unlikely. Even so, many in this country do live in dangerous circumstances. And random acts of hatred and death are all too common—not only on a massive scale as in the horrific events of Las Vegas last week, but also as children are hit and killed by stray bullets on neighborhood streets. Something has to change. For the sake of our nation and its people, something desperately has to change.
In my mind, that change has to come through bipartisan work to change gun laws. I realize there’s no way to get all guns out of the hands of all bad guys. But that sad fact should not stop us from making it harder to access weapons that are built for the sole purpose of killing people, in many cases on a disturbingly massive scale, as we witnessed last week. We have to move out the realm of political bickering and grandstanding, worrying about lobby groups and special interests, and instead worry about human life, and human flourishing. We have to mend the fabric of our national life, moving us away from a culture of death to a culture of life. After all, that’s what the Ten Commandments are all about—moving God’s people away from a culture of death to a culture of life. That’s what Jesus’ life was all about as well.
And the good news is, we can all embrace this work and this calling—whether we are men or women, young or old, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, whatever our background, race, color, sexuality. In fact, we need all our voices, speaking and acting in love, for each other and for our world. Those of us who follow God in Christ have the perfect model, with laws, commandments inscribed not only on stone, but on our hearts. They can guide us to fullness of life.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD