In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians we just heard:
“For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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.”
This, I think, is my favorite passage in the whole of the Bible. And after the emotional challenge of the last week, hearing the stories of the 49 lives ripped away in Orlando last Sunday morning, as well as the others who survived, some barely, I find this passage from Paul to be healing balm for the soul. For all of the problems I sometimes have with the Apostle Paul, and I do have many, in this case he shines brightly. He grasps and presents in the most clear and articulate way possible what our life in Christ is all about.
Paul reminds us that in Christ all of our many differences and divisions are transcended and reconciled, and in their place a new kind of life has come into being. That new life is as the sons and daughters of God. And it includes each and every one of us—whoever we are, whatever our differences, in all of our sameness and in all of our diversity.
If I were asked what the center or core of my faith is, I think this is what I would say: that in Christ we are united, made a new reality, and that the distinctions among us, even when they are great and seemingly significant, cannot truly divide and separate us. What’s more, it means that there must be room for everyone at God’s table and in God’s kingdom. And not only that there must be that room, but that there is that room. Because God has created that kind of room. And God’s wisdom, God’s love, and God’s embrace are wider and stronger and deeper than anything we can even imagine. I firmly believe that this is the message that we need to hear today, and this is the message that we need to share today. This is the message that will help to heal divisions among us across society. And it is the message that can help us defeat the distrust and even the hate that seems to continually fester in the world.
The past week has been so tremendously emotional and spiritually draining, as we learn about and reflect on the horrific events in Florida. It’s made all the more poignant by the fact that this past week was also the one year anniversary of the shooting at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Unfortunately, tragically, not much has changed in a year—except that these kinds of events are happening with greater frequency and with ever-higher causalities.
If I reflect back to a year ago, I remember how truly unsettling it felt to imagine that someone might join a Bible study—just like we have here every Wednesday night during the program year—and just as they began to pray together, he opened fire on people, simply because they were of a different race. He claimed he wanted to start a race war. And now, with the shooting in Orlando, it is much the same.
Of course, we still don’t exactly know why the Pulse nightclub was chosen. But it seems not insignificant that it is a bar with a largely gay and lesbian clientele. Some politicians and others uncomfortable with who the victims were seem to want to downplay the fact that it was a gay club, focusing instead on the global terrorism angle. But I don’t think you can separate the two. He was clearly and specifically targeting gay people, just as the Charleston shooter was specifically targeting African Americans.
For me, and probably for you, it’s hard to understand how it is that human beings would even be able to consider such evil acts, let alone perpetrate them. As I wrote in my message to the parish this week, the perpetrator of the Orlando shooting was Muslim and claimed ISIS as an inspiration, while the perpetrator of the Charleston shooting was Christian—a Lutheran in fact, just like my upbringing, just like my family. Terror and hate can grow in the soil of any faith tradition. Whatever their religious backgrounds, both were deeply disturbed young men whose hearts were infected with hate. Perhaps they were even possessed and tortured by demons themselves, just like the man in this morning’s gospel.
Now, of course, we don’t tend to think or talk that way very much today—believing in demons taking control of our minds. That's now how we usually look on the world. But how else do we explain such heartless and cruel inhumanity? In other places in his letters, when St. Paul reflects on sin, he often describes it as an evil power or force that takes hold of us. Maybe there’s something to that old world view, at least in the most extreme cases like these. It’s probably as good an explanation as anything else.
But more important than that, whether or not there are demons, what we discover in this morning’s gospel story is that God meets us even in the darkest places of life. As the gospel explains to us, this poor man is so tormented that he doesn’t even live with people, but in a graveyard, among the tombs. And the evil spirits are so powerful in him that his neighbors tried to keep him in chains; though, the spirits were too strong for that. But they were not too strong for God. In fact, nothing is too strong for God. And no place is too dark or too God-forsaken for God’s touch, for God’s healing, for God’s love. Even a church or a nightclub held hostage by a murder with an assault rifle. Even there, even under those unimaginable circumstances, God was present, hard as it may be to comprehend. We have to believe that. In fact, we have to know that. If we believe in God at all, we have to believe that God was there.
As the last week wore on, we heard examples of the ways that God was present in the dark places of the nightclub last Sunday morning. God was present as friends and strangers comforted and held each other close. God was present as a mother at the club shielded her son from gunfire. God was present in the text messages people sent to their families and friends—expressing their love, some for the last time. God was present in the policemen who risked their lives to save others. God was present in the hours and hours of bravery and quiet courage. And, of course, God was present in drawing into his eternal embrace and love those who did not survive—whoever they were, whatever their background, gay and straight, women and men of every race and religion and background—49 beautiful, wonderful, fabulous people, who will never, ever be forgotten.
There is no possible way to make theological sense of Orlando, of Charleston a year ago, of Columbine or Newtown, or any of the tragic events that have become such a common feature of the American landscape, to say nothing of the terrors that people in other parts of the world experience each and every day. And clearly there are no easy solutions. If there were, someone surely would have come up with one by now. Personally, I am firm believer in gun control. I think it’s ridiculous that an ordinary person can buy military-style weapons for personal use. But I also know that even the strictest gun control measures won’t solve all of our most serious problems.
What’s really necessary is something else: transformed hearts. Hearts transformed by God. Hearts touched and healed by God. And, I think, we are starting to see that—though the progress can excruciatingly be slow. A year ago, after the Charleston shooting, pressure mounted for the removal of the Confederate battle flag on the State House grounds in South Carolina. It was a very small step. But, it showed that overt, authorized, and institutional racism has no place in our life together—and with that flag gone, perhaps one fewer child will grow up admiring it and thinking it reflects a better time, when some people owned others and kept them in chains.
Likewise, as we have heard the stories of those killed or hurt in Orlando, many are coming to the realization that LGBT people are just like everyone else, that they, that we, have families who love them, and hopes for their futures, and big gracious hearts. Perhaps because of this horrific event and the generous response to it by people and communities of all backgrounds, a young man or woman who is conflicted about his or her identity will be brave enough to claim it with out fear, and maybe parents or grandparents will realize that their son or daughter who just came out is still their beloved child. Maybe churches, synagogues, and mosques will recognize their LGBT members as beloved children of God as well. Perhaps we will all be emboldened to recognize that hatred and discrimination of whatever kind—racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or even of other religions—have absolutely no place in our life together, particularly if we are people of faith, particularly if we are people who believe in a God love, particularly if we believe in a God who loves and cherishes all people.
So, let’s hear again St. Paul’s powerful words: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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.”
This, friends, is the good news. This is the heart of the gospel. Whoever we are, whatever our backgrounds, we are loved. We are accepted. We cherished. We are the sons and daughters of God. It is the truth that we have to believe and it is the truth that we have to share, so that others believe it too. And so that we do more than believe it, so that we live it, each and every day, with all that we are.
I’ll close with the prayer I composed and emailed earlier in the week. I wrote it at the request of friend who was struggling to put into words all of her conflicting thoughts and emotions. Perhaps it is helpful to you, too.
Let us pray:
Out of the darkness of our divided world we cry to you, O God. We pray for those who died in Orlando a week ago--gay and straight, men and women, sons and daughters, partners, parents, and friends--a reflection of the human rainbow in all its magnificent colors. May they be united with you and all those whose names are written in the Book of Life. We pray also for those who were injured and look to you for healing. In your great love, O God, comfort those who mourn. Be with them in their sorrow, support them in their loneliness, strengthen them with courage. Break down every barrier between your people: where there is hatred, give love; where there is injury, grant pardon; where there is distrust, restore faith; where there is sorrow, renew hope; where there is darkness, let there be light. Grant us grace to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression, but to strive always for justice and reconciliation. Turn our deep feeling now into determination, and our determination into deed, that a new world may arise among us where we all may live together as your children in the bonds of peace and love. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell