On Mass Shootings—Again

Published August 16, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

I was near a shooting once.

On Jan. 4, 1996, my best friend and I went to see a movie at a theater in an office building in Portland, Oregon. We walked in to the large, airy atrium and rode the wide-open escalator up several floors. It paralleled a set of stairs. On reaching the theater level, we heard a bang of some kind. We, and a handful of others, looked over a railing and saw people running up a different set of stairs. A woman dropped a bottle of orange juice and didn’t look back. Somebody yelled, “He has a gun!” My friend and I then ran down the stairs next to the escalator, out the doors we had entered, and back to his car. He used a mobile phone to call police and then we waited. We were jittery and confused and wanted to see what would happen next. Then we realized that the gunman could leave the building and we didn’t want to be anywhere nearby if that happened.

Later we learned that the shooter was angry with someone in the Charles Schwab office on the ground floor. He wounded two people and took two others hostage but eventually surrendered to police.

For years this was a story we told — a wild tale of an unlikely event, an aberration in the social order that we happened to be in the proximity of.

I could not have imagined that 23 years later I would be a pastor of a church regularly imagining who in my congregation would not be able to escape the sanctuary quickly enough should someone start shooting; deciding how to best teach our nursery staff to shelter in place with our babies and toddlers; wondering how to pastor to people who no longer feel safe worshipping with us because of a hate crime earlier this summer; calling the regional FBI office to see if my church is on a white supremacist hit list, such as the one the garlic festival gunman followed; or learning that one of our seniors just last week asked to see the contents of a suspicious-looking backpack that someone brought in.

We are a house of prayer for all people, but now we fear one of those people will enter with an activity very different than prayer in mind.

My mom once told me that she didn’t think she would become a one-issue public health administrator. She went from clinical nursing to nursing administration as the director of a state health department. Then HIV/AIDS hit. Her work in response to that public health crisis segued in her leading a federal government office entirely focused on preventing and combating the virus’s spread. Mom had had one image of her career path but the virus took her on another.

I have come to feel the same way about mass shootings. I did expect to preach on and offer leadership in response to any number of social ills, like bad housing, insufficient food, and the sins of racism and homophobia. But the bullets keep redirecting me.

And yet, bullets and viruses do not compare. The vector of HIV is part of a natural process, part of the chaotic life force on Earth. The paths that bullets keep taking through flesh are not. They are entirely human-made destroyers, and ones that make some people a great deal of money. There is profit for some in protecting your right, and mine, to own and to arm weapons designed for war.

At this point I would normally interject a theological perspective or lift up scripture to condemn our bloody state of affairs. But as anyone who has ever picked up a Bible knows, it can be used to support or to deny almost any position. It is not a coherent tome, but an intensely contradictory one. Which, for me, is the point. The divine, and our relationship with it, cannot be contained or fully described by human stories and language. The same is true of American scripture: our Constitution and our laws. They are open to whatever interpretation someone wants to find; whatever interpretation best fits an individual position.

But here’s the thing about mass shootings: They are not individual affairs. The gunman in Portland may have been directing his violence toward one business, but a whole host of people were affected by his actions. The same is true now. The ability to go to a fair or to a Walmart or to worship without looking behind our backs and keeping our ears pricked for tell-tale pops is shared by us all. We are all now in the business of thinking about, stressing about, and trying to prevent carnage, whether that was ever our plan or not.

So what should we plan to do next?

Eileen Gebbie is the senior minister at Ames United Church of Christ

Eighteen Hundred and Thirty-Two: 1 Timothy 6.6–19

Delivered at Ames UCC
on August 11, 20192019.8.11 x everywhere
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

 

pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness . . . be rich in good works, generous . . . and (be) ready to share . . . take hold of the life that really is life

In this letter to his co-missionary Timothy, Paul directs members of this new Jesus Way to

pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness . . . be rich in good works, generous . . . and (be) ready to share . . . take hold of the life that really is life

As the oldest preserved theologian of our faith—Paul’s letters being older than the written version of the gospels—Paul lays out what God needs of us and what we need of each other. For example, don’t make gaining wealth your priority. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with money, but when we love money, we get into trouble. The love of money distracts from the love of God and each other. Instead, again,

pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness . . . be rich in good works, generous . . . and (be) ready to share . . . take hold of the life that really is life

Likely dictated to a scribe on one day and carried by courier an unknown number of miles and additional days, Timothy was lucky to have ever received this letter.

I wish I could say the same about this letter:

[I unfurl down our sanctuary’s center aisle and beyond over 144 feet of taped-together pages.]
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Wishes and God: 2 Kings 5.1–15a

2018.11.4 god is thereDelivered at Ames UCC on November 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

WISH
I wish this story was true. I wish that with seven sincere baths in a sacred river, terrible ailments could be healed. I wish that I could walk with each of you who are living with cancer and depression and arthritis and heart failure to a place that keeps its own rules of germs and degeneration and neurology.

I wish that the dead, the loved ones that we will name here in worship and then see in photos in our parlor after worship, could have received such treatment so that they would be with us, bodily, right now.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the tears of joy and relief? As much water as would flow from of our eyes as in the river.

And I wish that Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger, could have been taken from the blood-drenched floors of the Tree of Life Synagogue, not to a mortuary but to a life-filled tree fed by the river Jordan. I wish that that there the gunman’s bullets would have been washed away, their sinews reknit, and their lives restored.

I wish that illness could be no more and sorrow a curious aberration from the past.

But those are not wishes destined for fulfillment.

UNFULFILLED
All of our bodies will fail of their own accord if we are not first killed by an accident or another person. There is no river or stream or spring with magical properties that can make them do otherwise.

And it is an abuse of God’s name, and each others’ souls, to say that sufficient faith will bring bodily healing. God is not so egotistical or fickle as to respond to an abracadabra of prayers.

Disease and damage and death are part of creation and creation is part of God, so even the worst of pains and poisonous acts are part of God, too.

I believe the ancients knew this. I believe that the communities that authored our scripture, understood that God’s relationship with us is not capricious or mechanistic.

Yes, they have given us many stories that describe a quid pro quo of giving obedience and receiving blessing, but I think they had just as much capacity for subtlety and metaphor as us. They were not ignorant of inevitable bodily outcomes, they just were just more willing to live into mystery, into the imaginal realm, than we are. So even though some of us may have been taught that stories like this reflect “an age when miracles still happened,” it does not.

This story of Namaan and Elisha, and those like it, is about the miracle of holy presence within the wholly ordinary. Let’s look at the story.

ELISHA’S MIRACLES
Elisha is a disciple of Elijah.

Elijah was a powerful and, toward the end of his career, a horribly bloodthirsty prophet. You may remember him from his retreat to the desert where he was fed by ravens. Later he helped a starving widow and her son with jars of flour and oil that perpetually refilled. He even brought that son back to life.

Elisha proves to be a powerful prophet in his own right.

For example, immediately before today’s story, Elisha also helps a widow secure enough food for her family. He invites her to borrow her neighbor’s empty oil jars and then pour what little oil she has left into each one. She finds that her meager supply can fill all the jars in the neighborhood.

Later, the child of another woman dies. When Elisha arrives, he presses his mouth to that of the boy, his eyes to those of the boy, his hands to those of the boy, an offering of warmth and humanity, which brings the child back to life.

Elisha even feeds a multitude of people with only a few loaves of bread.

Then today he relieves Naaman of a skin ailment by directing him to bathe in the river Jordan.

Notice how these miracles occur: through common earthenware, gentle and well-intentioned human touch, bread, and river water. No thunder, or potions, or shazam.

Notice what these miracles achieve: some relief from hunger, some relief from grief, some relief from discomfort. None of these miracles grant power or prestige. None of them grant a permanent lease on life.

Our miracle stories are not about extra faith granting the extra ordinary. In the commonplaceness of their means, and the impossibility of their ends, these miracles do not suggest a 1-2-3 formula for healing.

Our faith ancestors knew how poverty, illness, and grief distract and consume, so they used these radical reversals to startle and inspire us to recognize the simple, ubiquitous, and reassuring presence of God.

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