Updated: Jul 25, 2019
We are all far more alike than we are different
Three years ago an ISIS-inspired terrorist killed 49 innocent people at the Pulse nightclub. In my book, Broken, I devote a chapter to this horrible event. The chapter was adapted from a sermon I preached in the days following the shooting. I hope reading it today might offer you an appropriate remembrance of the victims and hope for the goodness that flows from Christ's admonition that we live as one.
"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." -- Galatians 3:28
John Claypool was a Baptist preacher turned Episcopal priest who, among many other noble endeavors, was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In his book, The Hopeful Heart, he tells the story about the time he and a rabbi participated in a tense meeting with several African-American ministers. The meeting ended with Claypool and the rabbi being accused of having no courage. Claypool said, "What started as a hopeful endeavor ended in total frustration." As Claypool left the meeting, he said to the rabbi, "I think it's hopeless. This problem is so old, so deep... there's no way out of it."
The rabbi had lived through the Holocaust. He replied to Claypool, "To the Jew, there is only one unforgivable sin, and that is the sin of despair...Think of the times you've been surprised... as you looked at a situation and deemed it hopeless. Then, lo and behold, forces that you did not even realize existed broke in and changed everything... If God can create the things that are from the things that are not and even make dead things come back to life, who are we to set limits on what that kind of potency may yet do?"
Have you ever committed the sin of despair? Maybe you weren't accepted to your dream school or were fired from your job. Maybe your spouse walked out. Whatever it was, you were convinced your life was over, and hope was nowhere to be found.
In 2016, we had the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States at a gay night club in Orlando, Florida. The victims were specifically targeted as members of the LGBTQ community (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer). After the shooting, one of my gay friends said, "I failed at hope today."
Yeah, I thought. I can understand why.
I went to bed a few nights that week feeling this way too. I stirred under the light of the moon, feeling dread, feeling unwell, angry, confused, and very, very sad. I can't even imagine how my LGBTQ brothers and sisters must have felt. I can't imagine how they still feel. This was not simply a terrorist attack. This was a mass shooting aimed at gay people. Period. To say it any other way is to invalidate the suffering the members of the LGBTQ community face in this country.
There's a story in Mark's Gospel that is relevant to what's happening right now in America. You might remember it. This guy is paralyzed, and his friends really want to get him to Jesus because they believe Jesus can heal him. So they take him to the house where Jesus is, but so many people are there that they can't get in. But they don't despair. They climb onto the roof, cut a hole in it, and lower their buddy down to Jesus. What a glorious image! Friends who will stop at nothing to make sure their pal gets the healing he desperately needs. I love it.
This story may have been recorded almost two thousand years ago, but I can't think of one more appropriate for today. We are living in a time when we must carry one another and make sure everyone finds the healing they need, even if we have to climb up on roofs and cut holes in them to make it happen.
For a week after the shooting in Orlando, I watched images on television of the wounded being carried hurriedly into the streets, fleeing the nightclub where the shooting took place. I watched, in horror, as a mother wept openly to a reporter, unaware whether her son was dead or alive. Then I watched her weep again days later when she learned he had been killed.
This is not the time for debate. This is a time to cut holes in roofs so our friends can get to Jesus because we know that healing takes place at his hands and his feet. And since we've been commanded to be Jesus' hands and feet, we better get to it. There is no better way to do that than by loving one another.
In the wake of the Orlando shooting, many people rushed into a debate about sexual ethics and gun control. What I wish had happened is that we had taken some time to simply mourn, be silent, and then ask how we might help one another heal.
Sometimes I think we Christians forget that our first responsibility is not to debate one another but to allow Jesus' love to flood our hearts and minds so that we might go and love our neighbors. All of our neighbors.
Saint Paul writes to the people of Galatia, saying that in Jesus 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."
It sounds nice, really nice. But when a crazed gunman bursts into a gay nightclub with an assault rifle and indiscriminately sprays bullets, killing forty-nine people, I have trouble believing we will ever live as one.
Our country is filled with hate, and the Christian experience is rife with division. At times it seems as though we are everything but one. We attack each another, we ridicule, we alienate, we fear, and we hate. And then, some of us even kill our neighbors.
But Saint Paul says it ought not to be so among those in Christ. In Christ, we become children of God. When we are baptized in Jesus' name, we are clothed in his very nature and bound together as one. In other words, there is no you. There is no me. There is only us.
What does that mean? Does it mean our differences don't matter? Does it mean we pretend that Jew and Greek, male and female, are exactly the same?
No. Of course not. Christianity doesn't ask us to erase our individuality-as if that were even possible. Our faith asks us to recognize that our unity is more important than our individuality. It asks that we die, daily, to ourselves so we may rise to new life-true life-in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But this transformation will never happen unless we take our true identities seriously. We are children of God, brothers and sisters through our faith in Christ. Nothing runs deeper than this-not a label we ascribe to ourselves nor any given to us by others. We are, by the loving grace of God, his precious and beloved children.
God sees Christ in you. Did you know that? This means you should see Christ in yourself-and in other people. Once you start seeing from this divine perspective, everything changes. Fr. Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest, says, "From this most positive and dignified position, you can let go of and even easily admit your wrongs. You are being held so strongly and so deeply that you can stop holding onto or defending yourself. God forever sees and loves Christ in you; it is only we who doubt our divine identity as children of God."
Believing this allows you to be filled with God's love and enables you to forgive and love yourself, which empowers you to love and forgive others-especially those with whom you disagree. This is what Christians do.
Jesus never sugarcoats his welcoming of people. He tells sinners not to sin, sure, but only after he embraces them, loves them, and becomes their friend. He never worries about being associated with the so-called wrong people, with prostitutes and tax collectors. He doesn't care about his reputation. He cares about salvation, and he wants everyone to have it.
Do you remember that dust-up between the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain and the LGBTQ community? The president of Chick-fil-A has a sincerely held belief about traditional marriage that it should be reserved for one man and one woman. It is his right to believe this. Because of this belief, a gay activist organized a boycott against Chick-fil-A. (As an aside, the president and gay activist have since become good friends, but that's another story about what happens when we dare to look past labels, treat one another with civility, and see the Christ in the other.)
You probably also remember that Chick-fil-A is always closed on Sundays. It's a company-wide policy. But on the day after the shooting in Orlando-a Sunday-Chick-fil-A brewed gallons of tea and prepared hundreds of sandwiches and handed them out for free to people donating blood to the victims.
No debate. No parsing of opinion. Just love.
People have differences, and these differences matter. But they don't give us an excuse to withhold love. To love as God loves is to love all of creation. God loves his enemies. And you know who God's enemies are, right?
Us. You and me. It sounds harsh, I know, but the Bible teaches that our sins make us enemies of God because sin makes us imperfect and God is perfect. Our sin separates us from God. But this is where things gets interesting. Instead of opposing his enemies, God does something completely different.
God stretches out the arms of love, and he dies for his enemies. For us.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul says, "For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life."
In our sin, we alienate ourselves from God. Jesus' response to that sin is to pour out his life for us. What he asks is that we do the same for one another.
There was and still is a lot of anger and blame going around since the Orlando shooting. It is easy to get caught up in blame. It makes us feel better to feel angry and point the finger at someone.
My challenge to you is to heed Fr. Rohr's advice: Take the divine perspective by looking for Jesus in the faces of your brothers and sisters as Christ does. This is the only antidote I know for despair. We cannot, must not despair. It is okay to feel hopeless from time to time. But it is not okay to remain hopeless, because humanity, while deeply divided, is ultimately stitched together by love, not hate. When hatred seeks to rip us apart, God always re-sews in love. Always.
We saw this re-making in the weeks following the Orlando shooting. In the midst of tragedy, there were bright moments, as there always are when hatred rears its ugly head. Love fights back. It always does, and love always wins.
One way that love wins is through mourning. We must wrap our arms around the LGBTQ community and love them through this awful ache. They are scared right now. The worst mass shooting in history targeted them. How would you feel? I would be terrified. I would feel pushed to the edge of society and very vulnerable.
Jesus spends his entire ministry focusing on the vulnerable people. He goes painfully out of his way to ensure that those who feel neglected, downtrodden, and cast aside know of his love.
It is not the church's job to tell you what to believe about every social issue-sexual ethics. gun control, abortion. These are complicated issues with no easy answers. I won't-and the church shouldn't-tell you what to believe. The church's job-and my job-is to declare to you the love of Christ.
And that in Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Greek. Slave nor free.
Children of a living, loving God bound together as one. May we go forth and treat one another as God always intends-as brothers and sisters-children of a most merciful Father who hears our cries in the dark of a bloody night and always, always, always comes running.
Rest in Peace:
Stanley Almodovar III. Amanda L. Alvear. Oscar A. Aracena Montero. Rodolfo Ayala Ayala. Antonio Davon Brown. Darryl Roman Burt II. Angel Candelario-Padro. Juan Chavez Martinez. Luis Daniel Conde. Cory James Connell. Tevin Eugene Crosby. Deonka Deidra Drayton. Simón Adrian Carrillo Fernández. Leroy Valentin Fernandez. Mercedez Marisol Flores. Peter Ommy Gonzalez Cruz. Juan Ramon Guerrero. Paul Terrell Henry. Frank Hernandez. Miguel Angel Honorato. Javier Jorge Reyes. Jason Benjamin Josaphat. Eddie Jamoldroy Justice. Anthony Luis Laureano Disla. Christopher Andrew Leinonen. Alejandro Barrios Martinez. Brenda Lee Marquez McCool. Gilberto R. Silva Menendez. Kimberly Jean Morris. Akyra Monet Murray. Luis Omar Ocasio Capo. Geraldo A. Ortiz Jimenez. Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera. Joel Rayon Paniagua. Jean Carlos Mendez Perez. Enrique L. Rios Jr. Jean Carlos Nieves Rodríguez. Xavier Emmanuel Serrano-Rosado. Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz. Yilmary Rodríguez Solivan. Edward Sotomayor Jr. Shane Evan Tomlinson. Martin Benitez Torres. Jonathan A. Camuy Vega. Juan Pablo Rivera Velázquez. Luis Sergio Vielma. Franky Jimmy DeJesus Velázquez. Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon. Jerald Arthur Wright.
Until next time.
Peace and Love.