Standing in Shifting Sands

Excerpts from a Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Lent
Coral Gables Congregational Church - Coral Gables, Florida
February 18, 2018
Mark 1:9-15

No Common Ground - Cleveland Republican National Convention 2016

No Common Ground - Cleveland Republican National Convention 2016

While this morning I had intended to preach about living in the wilderness of dementia, the sands shifted when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz walked into his old high school with an assault rifle and opened fire, deliberately killing seventeen people and wounding another fifteen.  I can’t ignore this local tragedy or allow the national epidemic of gun violence to be buried in the sand.

I come from Ohio, a state that sends many snow birds to Florida each year, and like Florida, is a presidential swing state.  Ohio is also a state, like Florida, with a strong gun lobby and lax gun laws.  And, Ohio, like Florida, has experienced multiple, tragic, mass shootings.  

Do you remember the Chardon, Ohio High School shooting in February, 2012?  Probably not.  We have become numb to these shootings. We see the news reports, the media covers it for a few days, and there are passionate statements about how we can never let it happen again. And then, we move on.

Unfortunately, the reality of gun violence in our nation is only getting worse.   Since 2013, there have been nearly 300 school shootings in America — an average of about one a week.   And, while more individuals in America are killed by guns than in car accidents, in many states (including Ohio and Florida), it's easier to buy a gun than to get a driver’s license.  As we once again learned this past week, no matter where we live, work, play, pray, or go to school, a shooting can happen to someone we know or love, even to ourselves.   

Gun violence is something we all have in common, and most Americans are concerned about it.  However, there appears to be very little common ground in our attitudes about gun legislation.  Two distinct cultures and worldviews are pitted against one another:  gun control vs. the second amendment.  And unfortunately, the latter seems to be winning with tremendous dollars being spent on advertising, lobbying and campaign contributions, especially in states like Florida and Ohio.  

So, if we live in a nation with two distinct cultures and worldviews about guns, what are we to do?  Some believe that gun legislation in this country is a hopeless cause.  I’m here to tell you that nothing is hopeless – not gun violence and not dementia – for with God all things are possible.
On Election Day 2016, when I was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia called Frontotemporal Degeneration, life was turned upside down like an hour glass as we learned that I had a brain disease that we never knew existed. Like Jesus in the afterglow of his baptism, we wandered out of the doctor’s office into the wilderness of dementia, and discernment.  We had to accept the reality of my condition and discern what would become of us. 

Shortly after I retired, we went on a journey – not 40 days and 40 nights in the desert – but 14 days at sea.  As we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar under the full moon of Holy Week, something inside of me shifted… I decided that instead of drowning in what I had perceived to be quick sand, I wanted to ride the shifting sands of my life, and Emily decided to start mapping our course for the journey.  We’re now walking in this uncharted and sometimes frightening wilderness, discovering a new fullness of life.  

Mark’s gospel tells us that while Jesus sojourned in the wilderness, he was tempted by Satan – not necessarily the devil or the evil one, but quite possibly, the agent of God who was given the task of testing the fidelity and righteousness of humanity, the same biblical character in the Hebrew Bible who tested Job.   Over the past year, I have confronted the great tester as well – tempted to deny the reality of my disease, to believe I can return to my former life, and to assume that I can’t slow or even reverse the deterioration of my brain…

I think the tempter is testing our nation when it comes to gun violence.  We can’t return to the way life was in previous generations; to do so is to live in a golden age of memory (which by the way, wasn’t all that golden for everybody).   Rather, we have to find a way forward in the wilderness of the 21st century, offering hope, safety, and help to one another.  

I do not believe we are going to eliminate guns in America, so we need to figure out how to coexist with them.  As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has suggested, we need is a public health approach to gun legislation similar to the model we use to reduce deaths from other potentially dangerous things around us, such as swimming pools, cigarettes, alcohol, and automobiles.   

Jesus’ time in the wilderness has something to teach us about co-existing with things that make us afraid.   According to the text, Jesus was not alone in the desert.  The oldest gospel account tells us that he was with wild beasts.  Christian tradition has assumed those beasts to be threatening enemies, dangerous bedfellows, aggravating predators, or at best, bothersome nuisances – a theological perspective consistent with the understanding of nature as something to be conquered and subdued.  Consciously or unconsciously, this perspective also has informed gun legislation in America; there is danger lurking on every corner, so we had better defend ourselves with guns.

Perhaps however, the wild beasts were not foes, but rather, Jesus’ companions in the wilderness.  They might have summoned the angels to minister to Jesus; or maybe, they were the angels, teaching and helping him survive his time in the desert.

I have met some interesting folks on my journey through the shifting sands of life, who at first, seemed threatening, but over time, became companions, friends and teachers.  I’ve also been the beneficiary of extraordinary kindness, generous hospitality and amazing gifts from angels in all sorts of disguises, including those with whom I’ve had political differences of opinion on various topics, such as gun control.  

Through our journey in a new wilderness, Emily and I have experienced first-hand how hugely important welcome, inclusion, acceptance, compassion, and advocacy are, especially to strangers, sojourners, newcomers and misfits.  While less than 5% of shootings are committed by those with diagnosable mental illness,  who knows how much gun violence could be eliminated if those struggling with mental and emotional illness and other cognitive disorders were truly welcomed and cared for in our communities.

I have been told that you have you have joined congregations across the country in efforts to reduce gun violence and to reduce the stigma and promote the inclusion of individuals and families living with dementia and mental illness in the life of the faith community.  
This is really important ministry, for as we have once again witnessed in this week’s tragic school shooting, our nation needs to both eliminate gun violence, to separately address the growing issues of mental illness, dementia and brain disorders in our country, and to not conflate the two.  Along with working for responsible gun legislation and supporting families affected by gun violence, providing welcome, support and advocacy for people who are living with brain diseases of all sorts is a way the church can step into the complicated fray called life the 21st century.

In order to carry out your two-prong ministry, you will need to learn about gun violence, the gun lobby, and gun legislation in America, and develop an intentional practice of really seeing, knowing, understanding, appreciating and including people with cognitive and emotional challenges.  Both of these are commitments that will require you to come close to your own fears.  In doing so, you might be tempted to run away.  I know I have been, but don’t.  Stay in the wilderness and call upon both the beasts and the angels into ministry so that you might be become a beacon of hope to this broken, wounded, frightened and divided nation. 


[2] (NYT, 10/3/15)

[3] Gun Violence and Mental Illness, edited by Liza Gold and Robert Simon, 2016