Sermon, May 29, 2022
Rev. Anton Jacobs - KCUCC
How Do You Preach a Sermon…?
By Anton K. Jacobs, copyright 2022
Acts 16:16-34, NRSV
I don’t know how to preach a sermon after a week in which nineteen children and two teachers were murdered in a school in Texas. I don’t know how to preach a sermon, when at the same time, police outside the room were waiting for different orders while the killing continued.
I don’t know how to preach a sermon after an eighteen-year-old was able to purchase an AR-15-style assault rifle with a debit card.
I don’t know how to preach a sermon when an eleven-year-old girl named Miah, whose classmate died right beside her, has to have bullet fragments removed from her back and her head and later still thinks that the gunman is going to come get her.
I don’t know how to preach a sermon after a week in which ten-year-old Mario can’t sleep at night and hasn’t eaten since Tuesday. His mother told him that his classmate friends were “all with God now.”
I don’t know how to preach after a week in which a former president and government representatives attended a National Rifle Association convention within days of the mass shooting. This convention featured “a series of political speakers, including the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem; Senator Ted Cruz of Texas; and Mark Robinson, lieutenant governor of North Carolina.” It was a forum in which “The speeches became more defiant as the night went on, each acknowledging the tragic murder of 19 children in Uvalde, Texas, just days before but quickly pivoting to a full-throated defense of Second Amendment rights….” How do you preach a sermon after that?
How do you preach a sermon when at the NRA Convention you get a former president saying, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the same shibboleth we here so often and which was the same refrain that “Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had used onstage less than an hour earlier”? Trump, who received 80% of the white evangelical Christian vote went on to praise these gun-rights advocates. “You are the backbone of our movement,” he said. Senator Ted Cruz had already blamed “cultural sickness” and things like fatherless children and video games. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem attacked those who advocate for better gun safety legislation. She said, “Let me tell you the truth about the enemies of the Second Amendment. They are schooled in the ways of Marx and Lenin.”
Nine hundred; that’s how many shootings on school grounds we’ve had in the United States “since the massacre of six- and seven-year-olds at Sandy Hook a decade ago.” Guns are now the leading cause of death in the U.S. among children between the ages of one and nineteen. We’ve got a rightward-leaning Supreme Court and multiple statehouses on the brink of making abortion nearly impossible for a woman to get (in the name of “pro-life!) and yet those same folk refuse to allow even expanded background checks on gun purchases or any restrictions on the sale of assault rifles. I simply don’t know how to preach a sermon in this 21st-century USA.
I got the call from Pastor Jessica on Wednesday that she was still testing positive for Covid-19, asking me out of her concern for others, to fill in today. (By the way, I took the test for Covid on Thursday just to be sure.) So I selected from my file of sermons one that would go with today’s lectionary reading and that would make a good foundation for a rewrite from the perspective of who I am now and where we are today. I found one. You see the title in the bulletin. You heard the scripture read by our lector. It’s not a bad sermon. It spins off one of those many weird stories we find in the book of Acts—the one in which Paul and Silas are locked up in jail after being beaten because they interfered with somebody’s capitalistic enterprise, with chains on their legs, yet are singing hymns of praise to God. But an earthquake strike occurs, opening the jail doors and unlocking the chains of the imprisoned. That sermon makes the point that, because of the teachings of Jesus, we Christians are alienated in an alienating world. Yet we are citizens of the whole world. We live in a world that coerces us to make ultimate commitments to partial elements of the world—our partner, our family, our profession, our political party, our ideology, our religion, our country. But because we follow someone who teaches us about the Kingdom of God, among us and within us, we must live beyond these partial commitments. We are called to live beyond those partial allegiances and for the welfare of all humanity—all families, all countries, every human being. We are to be those who lament the costs of those partial claims on our souls but yet still be able to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
But how do we sing today? After most of the leading Judeans were carried off into exile in Babylon almost six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, some psalm writer asked, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?” Somewhat later the unknown author of Ecclesiastes cried out, “Vanity of vanities…! All is vanity.” How do we sing today? How do I preach a sermon today, the day before Memorial Day when we remember those who have fallen in battle while remembering children just trying to go to school?
For years, Jean and I have been making annual contributions to various gun-control organizations. Charity was active in the movement back in the 1990s that led to the federal government’s ban on assault weapons, a ban that was allowed to expire in 2004.
Sermons generally offer some kind of comfort, some kind of encouragement, some kind of solace in our difficult lives in a difficult world. Any kind of encouraging word from traditional Christian views I could say today would sound trite and ridiculous to me and probably to you.
There occur those times when we feel just wretched about life––alienated from humanity in feelings of despair about the world. Times when we just want to say, “Stop the world, and let me off!” I think of that scene in that 1997, feel-good movie, As Good As It Gets in which the obsessive-compulsive Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, after trying to get an emergency appointment with his psychiatrist stops in the waiting room, looks around at the other people seeking healing, and asks, “What if this is as good as it gets?” I look around at the carnage that is America today—I could add Ukraine and Russia and other places—and ask, is this as good as it gets?
The irony of that movie As Good as It Gets is found in that that obsessive-compulsive, emotionally damaged man begins to be redeemed as he learns to reach out of himself and care for others. There might be a sermon in there somewhere.
And I think of my hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who taught love and nonviolence in the face of the USA’s white supremacy and murderous hostility to equal rights. He was a man who desired a life he was denied by a white-American assassin’s bullet when King was only thirty-nine years old. It is not lost on me that I, in fact, have lived the life he desired. Since I was 39, I’ve enjoyed six flourishing grandchildren, published several books and articles, taught dozens of college courses, pastored several churches, and traveled the world. But Martin Luther King is the one who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” My hope and my prayer on this Memorial Day Sunday are that he was right.
1. “Uvalde Live Updates: Guns in Texas Shooting Came from Company Known for Pushing Boundaries,” May 28, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/05/28/us/texas-school-shooting.
2. Luke Vander Ploeg, “The N.R.A. Convention Kicks Off Its Second Day After a Defiant Opening,” May 28, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/05/28/us/texas-school-shooting#nra-convention-saturday.
3. Eric Bradner and Jeff Zeleny, CNN Politics, “Trump, other Republicans Reject Gun Reforms at NRA Convention that Showcases Nation’s Split,” May 28, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/27/politics/uvalde-donald-trump-nra-convention/index.html.
4. Bradner & Zeleny, “Trump.”
6. “A Senseless Slaughter,” The Economist, May 28, 2022, 17.
7. Dustin Jones, “Fierarms Overtook Auto Accidents as the Leading Cause of Death in Children, NPR. April 22, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/04/22/1094364930/firearms-leading-cause-of-death-in-children.
8. Psalm 137:4, NRSV, altered.
9. Ecclesiastes 1:2, NRSV.
10. James L. Brooks, dir., As Good as It Gets (TriStar Pictures & Gracie Films, 1997).
11. Quoted in Bruce Mirken, “Martin Luther King and the Arc of the Moral Universe,” August 26, 2013, https://greenlining.org/blog-category/2013/martin-luther-king-and-the-arc-of-the-moral-universe/?gclid=CjwKCAjwkMeUBhBuEiwA4hpqEG87us2GufvMTNUxwCCEmn-QmMqQBpHHnx3fUYRQKBKGaUK2oFSQRhoC1RYQAvD_BwE.