THE TRUE PEACEMAKER
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 8, 2017; 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 25:47-52
“You shall not murder.”
We begin today with a saying attributed to St. Augustine: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”
I don’t know how it was for you this past week, as you heard the news of mass murder on the Las Vegas Strip. It was Monday morning when I heard about it, on the TV news. And I have to say, I felt angry: angry that, yet again, a socially isolated man with an arsenal of powerful weapons took his rage out on people he did not know.
What happened this week was the deadliest single-shooter massacre in American history. Nearly 60 are dead and nearly 500 wounded. They were innocents: people attending a concert, out for a good time on a beautiful evening.
Just this morning, I learned on the news that, on the day of the shooting last Sunday, 80 more people around the country died as a result of gunshot wounds. Friends, we have a huge problem with gun violence in this country of ours!
The Las Vegas shooting took place over the course of about 10 minutes: though it took the murderer days to set everything up. So powerful were the weapons he used — modified as they were to function like machine guns — that the scene on the ground was more like a battlefield in a war zone than anything belonging to civilian life.
I haven’t heard the final word on this, but it does appear that every one of those guns — along with the so-called “bump stocks” that converted them to automatic fire — were purchased legally.
The shots were fired from the thirty-second floor. That, and the fact that it was night, meant that the murderer could see none of his victims. They were anonymous pawns in his pathological chess-game. He could neither see them fall nor hear the cries of pain. His precise motive remains a mystery.
Another reaction I had to that news, besides anger, was a kind of despair. “Not again,” I said to Claire as I called her over to look at the news report. “Not again.”
It’s all too familiar. Ten years ago, after the Virginia Tech shootings in which 32 died and 17 were wounded, an activist named Josh Sugarman put together a sample press release that could be used for future massacres. It’s uncanny, but it tracks the details of this incident almost exactly. All you have to do is fill in the blanks. It’s called “Yet Another Mass Shooting”:
“A heavily armed gunman (insert name), opened fire yesterday at (circle one: an office building / church / school / shopping mall), leaving more than (insert number) dead and (insert number) others wounded before taking his own life. Authorities have yet to cite a motive. Armed with (choose one or more) a high capacity pistol / AK – 47 type assault rifle / AR – 15 type assault rifle, the gunman (insert name), opened fire on the office workers / worshipers / students / shoppers in a rampage that lasted less than 5 / 10 / 15 minutes. Police report that the shooter fired more than (insert number) rounds of ammunition and that the gun was (legally or not legally) owned. The shooter was described by neighbors as a (quiet or angry or friendly) man who kept to himself. “I didn’t even know he owned a gun (or, he did own a lot of guns),” one said. One onlooker, standing next to an impromptu memorial, told reporters, “I can’t believe it happened here in (insert name of town). We have such a close-knit community”….
A National Rifle Association spokesman stated (choose one): “This is the time to grieve, not to talk about gun control” or, “The appropriate focus is enforcement of the 20,000 gun laws already on the books,” or “No comment.”1
Yes, we’ve heard it way too many times before.
The scripture text — that comes up in the lectionary for this 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time — is the Ten Commandments. It includes, of course, the line, “You shall not murder.” That particular verse is not one I’ve ever felt the need to preach on before: not because I don’t take the commandment seriously, but because it seems perfectly obvious and indisputable. I’ve never for a moment imagined that anyone — in this or any other church I’ve served — displayed the slightest inclination to murder another human being. We’re nice people, that way!
Just look around you: does anyone here today look like the murderous type?
I don’t think it hurts to be reminded, though, that this ethical precept is a foundation-stone of God’s law — of the Lord’s plan for the human race. And that means: anything that makes it easier for any human being to murder another is an affront to God.
We have in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions a document from the sixteenth century known as the Westminster Larger Catechism. Its question-and-answer format once served as a sort of curriculum for teaching people how to become Christian.
One of the fascinating things about the Larger Catechism is the way it presents the Ten Commandments. It looks at the flip side of each commandment. It deals with the “thou shalt not,” but then turns it over to consider the “thou shalt.”
It’s as though the reader is asking — in the case of this commandment — “You shall not murder — I get that. But what should I do, to be a faithful follower of Christ?” The catechism provides the answer.
Here’s the question: “What are the duties required in the Sixth Commandment?”
“The duties required in the Sixth Commandment are: all careful studies and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others” — well, there’s the obvious part.
But then the catechism goes on to say: “by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions — take that, angry people! — and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any.” So, we don’t just avoid murder ourselves: we seek to prevent it happening anywhere.
Next, we come upon a self-defense clause. This ought to be of special interest to anyone in the military or law enforcement, as well: “by just defense thereof against violence.” This is no pacifist statement: there’s a recognition, here, that there are occasions when legitimate authorities can use force, even deadly force, to defend others against violence. (But we should emphasize, the word “just” in “just defense” means legitimate authorities.)
But there’s so much more the catechism has to say about the positive implications of “You shall not murder.” We continue:
“…patient bearing of the hand of God; quietness of mind; cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreation…” Clearly this is a thoroughgoing ethic of peaceful living— not just preventing untimely death.
There’s more: “…by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance” — in other words, putting up with one another — “readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil.”
Moving out beyond controlling our own behavior, there’s encouragement to reach out, offering life to others: “comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.”
All this is reminiscent of one of the more challenging teachings of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount — Matthew 5:21-22 — Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Really? “You fool!”? Isn’t that just a little harmless name-calling, a little trash-talk between friends?
Jesus is concerned about even that: because he sees, even in common, everyday anger, the seed of a bitter plant, a weed, that — if pressed down into the right soil and allowed to flourish — may mature, in time, into something far more dangerous. Maybe even murder!
So, he says to them — if I may expand on his words a little — “My advice to you is, nip it in the bud! I expect far more from you, my disciples, than just the bare minimum of the Ten Commandments. Don’t pat yourself on the back because you’ve never murdered anyone. Examine yourself. Look deep into your heart. You know there have been times you’ve nurtured and cultivated — and yes, even savored — your anger. It may be but the tiniest seed of murder, but still, it belongs to the same plant. It has the same DNA. So, my advice is: avoid it!”
Let’s look at something else Jesus says — and this is specifically about the use of weapons. In our Gospel lesson for today, there’s the story of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and his arrest by the mob. It’s all very unexpected, and amidst the pushing and shoving, one of Jesus’ followers pulls out a sword and cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest. “Put your sword back into its place!” roars Jesus in response. “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
You may know that saying in its more familiar form: “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”
Jesus isn’t talking here about the legitimate use of weapons by law enforcement authorities. Quite the contrary: what he does, here, is submit himself to those authorities. He complains to those who’ve come to arrest him: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” But then he concedes that, because they have been sent by the high priest, they are the legitimate authority. He goes along quietly.
What the Lord specifically forbids, here, is vigilante behavior. What he’s saying is: “If you take up weapons as a self-appointed arbiter of justice, you are not following my way.”
The way of Jesus is the way of peace: but there’s an alternative narrative in our culture that says peace can be achieved in another way: by means of force.
You can see that alternative narrative in the name of one of the most famous guns in American history: the Colt 45 revolver, better known as “The Peacemaker.”
Its full name is the Colt 45-caliber Single Action Army revolver. It was first manufactured in 1873. It’s also been called “the Gun that Won the West.”
If you’ve ever watched an old-time Western movie — and I’m sure you have — this is the gun the cowboys have in their holsters. This is the gun both the good guy and the bad guy reach for, as they face off in the middle of Main Street.
All this is pure fiction. The quick-draw revolver duel was the invention of newspaper columnists spinning yarns of Wild West adventure for readers back East. Later, Hollywood scriptwriters took up this proud tradition. In the classic Western, it’s always simple: white hat vs. black hat. By the time the credits roll, the good guys have won and the bad guys have lost. That’s because, at the climactic moment, the good guy draws his gun — his Peacemaker — first.
I love a good Western. I love that classic story line. I love seeing good triumph in the end. But I’m under no illusion that virtue emerges, magically, from the barrel of a gun.
What worries me is that lots of people today do seem to believe that. Who knows? Maybe the Las Vegas sniper believed it, too: about himself. We have no way of knowing what went on in his mind, but I think there’s a pretty good chance he convinced himself — through whatever twisted logic he could muster— that he was morally justified in what he was doing.
In the Harry Potter stories, there’s a magical mirror known as the Mirror of Eresid. It’s got an irresistible power of attraction. Those who stand and gaze into the mirror see themselves not as they really are, but as they imagine themselves to be, if all their dreams came true. Some people are so captivated, looking into the mirror hour after hour, that they fail to eat and drink, becoming weak and listless. Others go mad.
Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, has wisely hidden the mirror away. He knows that only the strongest can gaze into it and stop themselves from being captivated by the fantasy.
There are millions of Mirrors of Eresid in our land today. Only they’re not mirrors at all. They’re guns. All too many gun owners take their weapons in their hands and believe that merely possessing such a powerful object makes them stronger, more virtuous, more capable of doing good than other, lesser beings.
Guns are not peacemakers. They have no power to save us. There is only one peacemaker. There is only one savior. Confronted by the forces of evil, he told his disciple to put his sword away. Then he submitted to the principalities and powers of this world and died on the cross.
But that was not the end of the story. God raised him up on the third day. And we believe this God of grace will one day raise up those who bled to death on the asphalt of that Las Vegas parking lot as well.
We end as we began: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”
As you reflect on the troubling news out of Las Vegas, may you feel anger at the way things are. But may you also join with others of good will, exercising courage to make the hope of peace a reality.
I invite you to join me, now, in praying the responsive prayer in the bulletin: a prayer for all those who are victims of violence.
Then, we’ll sing a hymn. It’s new to us as a congregation, but it’s a tune you’ve heard before, I’m sure. The tune is “Jerusalem,” a famous English national hymn. It’s a prayer for peace in Christ.
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
1Adapted from James E. Atwood, America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé (Kindle Locations 4112-4128). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.