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Sun, Feb 18, 2018

An Appeal to God

Duration:19 mins 31 secs

Our Second Reading for this morning comes from the First Letter of Peter,
chapter 3, verses 18-22. First Peter is addressed to Christians in the midst of
suffering and persecution. Thus, the letter seeks to encourage and strengthen the
young church. That is the intention of the verses that we read today as well,
although at first glance it might appear to be a bit of “stream of consciousness”
writing on Peter’s part. If we focus on what Christ has done, I believe we will find
our way through. Let us hear the Word of God to us today from 1 Peter 3:18-22.
18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous,
in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the
spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in
former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the
building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through
water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt
from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection
of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels,
authorities, and powers made subject to him.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
On April 20, 1999 I was a second year seminary student working an
internship at River Road Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia. My
supervisor was Dick Sommers, a kind and faithful pastor, just a year away from
retirement. I was one of his last students before he retired and he was very patient
with us, readily sharing of his wisdom and experience.
But on April 20, 1999 two students entered Columbine High School in
Columbine, Colorado and murdered 12 students and one faculty member, injuring
21 more before taking their own lives. That was almost 19 years ago.
The next day we gathered at the church for a planning session. Our
internship was almost finished and we were trying to soak up all we could. We
gathered in a state of shock. The tragedy the day before had been completely
unexpected. So we asked Dick what he was going to do on Sunday. Would he
preach about the school shooting? What do you do as a pastor on a Sunday after
such a Tuesday?
Dick paused for a moment before answering. Then he told us that we would
include mention of the tragedy in the Prayers of the People on Sunday, but he
would not be preaching about Columbine. He would stay with his intended topic
and sermon. Dick continued that a preacher could preach on the latest tragedy or
the current issue of the day each and every Sunday, because something comes up
every week. In his opinion, the gospel is larger than any particular tragedy and the
gospel needed to be proclaimed every Sunday.
For the majority of my ministry I have followed that advice. When the
tragedies of the day or the week seemed to cry out for a Word from the pulpit, I
have typically included a mention in the Prayers of the People or read a prepared
statement at the beginning of worship or before the scripture reading and sermon.
Such statements focus on the gospel message of light in the midst of darkness and
hope in the midst of despair. One exception to this practice was the Sunday after
the shooting at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church in June 2015. I did so
that day as the response of that church with words of forgiveness so powerfully
spoke to me as a natural fit in my already planned sermon on Cain and Abel.
So what about today? What do we do on this Sunday after another shooting
in a school, as we join those who mourn seventeen students and teachers?
When I heard the news on Wednesday afternoon of the shooting at the high
school in Parkton, Florida my initial response was not outrage or sorrow. I had a
barely passing thought that we should mention something about it at the Ash
Wednesday service that night. But I dismissed that thought. After all, there are
school shootings all the time. Yes, initially I was numb to this tragedy.
Dismissive even. What kind of world do we live in where my first reaction to a
school shooting is that they happen all the time?
Then that night, at the Ash Wednesday service, one by one you came
forward. You sprayed gray paint on a canvas with a cross to begin our artistic
response to the theme of forgiveness. You received the bread and dipped it in the
cup for communion. Then you stepped toward me or toward Nadine. Many of you
were still chewing the bread. With open eyes you looked into mine. With a dip
into the chalice to retrieve ashes mixed with oil, I called you by name and drew a
cross on your forehead while speaking the words, “Dust you are, and to dust you
shall return.” As I said it again and again and again the enormity of the tragedy in
this fallen world flooded over me.
To children and teens with such hope and promise ahead I said, “Dust you
are, and to dust you shall return.”
To parents of children the same age as those killed that afternoon I said,
“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
To those who, far too recently and far too soon, had stood beside the graves
of loved ones I said, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
And I realized that Ash Wednesday is a day to contemplate our own mortality, not
bury our children. And I knew that this morning as I proclaimed the gospel I had
to speak to this tragedy.
Now I suspect that you are bracing yourself at this moment for whatever it is
that I am going to say next. As the father of teenage boys and a tween aged girl, I
have my own very strong opinions about school shootings and gun violence. In
conversations this week with my children I have been reminded that these issues
are close, not distant. My kids participate in active shooter drills on a regular
basis. Yes, I certainly have my own opinions. And I would be happy to share
them with you at another time or on another occasion. But my opinions are not
ultimately helpful, especially in a sermon. Because no matter what I say, if we are
honest, very few, if any of our opinions about guns, mental health, and school
shootings are any different today than they were on Tuesday, the day before this
most recent tragedy. And children keep dying. We need to confess that.
So my appeal to you this morning is to something more than opinion and
spin. It is the same appeal that we find in our scripture text from First Peter. As I
introduced it, I encouraged us to focus on what Christ has done. So, in our text we
find that Christ has suffered on the cross for our sins. Christ has risen from the
dead to give us new life. And then, in an odd phrase, “Christ went and made a
proclamation to the spirits who were in prison.” That is language which later gets
picked up in the Apostles’ Creed when it says that Jesus “descended into hell.”
Yes, First Peter tells us that Jesus preached to those who were dead. He preached
to those who “in former times did not obey.” He preached to those who were so
wicked that God decided the best way to deal with the evil in the world was to
flood the entire earth and begin again. Yes, in the days between his death and
resurrection Jesus preaches to them because even for those in hell it was not too
My friends, we are caught in this culture and cycle of blame and hostility.
On this issue, and so many others, we are mired in, as columnist David Brooks
recently said, a “competition between partial truths.”1
And despite our best efforts
or our lack of them, for the last nineteen years we have done nothing to change the
trajectory of the increasing number of children killed by gun violence in this
country. As an article in the Washington Post, which sought to dispel some
inflated numbers about gun violence in schools, put it:
What is not in dispute is gun violence’s pervasiveness and its
devastating impact on children. A recent study of World Health
Organization data published in the American Journal of Medicine found that,
among high-income nations, 91 percent of children younger than 15 who
were killed by bullets lived in the United States.
And the trends are only growing more dire.
On average, two dozen children are shot every day in the United
States, and in 2016 more youths were killed by gunfire – 1,637 – than during
any previous year this millennium.2
My friends it is not just shootings in school. It is at home, other public
events and places, and suicides. We have failed the next generation with our
inaction and inability to do something, to do anything because in our blame of the
other we refuse to move ourselves.
If Christ could preach the gospel to the wicked of Noah’s day who now sit in
hell, then my friends we must not despair because it is not too late.
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ appeals to God on our
behalf. In our baptism, we too appeal to God for a good conscience through the
resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the apostle Paul writes in the sixth chapter of his
letter to the Romans:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may
abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do
you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were
baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by
baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the
glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.3
Through baptism we might walk in newness of life, and according to First Peter
that means the waters of baptism clean our conscience as well as our souls. I do
not want to speak for you, but I fear my own conscience is not clean for I have
failed to do something, to do anything in the face of gun violence affecting the
children of this country.
My friends, on this first Sunday of Lent, the time has come for us to do
something, to appeal to God through our baptismal identity, to show the world
there is a different and better way, to walk in the newness of life. As the church, as
followers of Jesus Christ, as those called to peacemaking and reconciliation, as
those whose lives are supposed to be marked by faith, hope, and love; we can show
the world a better way. It is a way of action for in the same way that Pope Francis
said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That is how prayer works,”4
we pray for the children and youth, for the teachers and administrators, for first
responders, for the parents and communities who are victims of gun violence, we
mourn with those who mourn, and then we protect them.
Now if your first inclination as we leave worship today is to double down on
the position you held on Tuesday before the tragedy to the exclusion of and in
antagonism to all others, to continue the competition between partial truths, then I
suspect this sermon has fallen on deaf ears. I am well aware of the divides in this
country about what we should do regarding gun violence; they are cavernous. And
yet, I am not without hope. We can bridge the gap, we can come together, we can
reach out to our neighbors, we can create a community where all children are loved
and welcome and cared for and given the help they need. We can make the safety
of our children more important than our political opinions. We can do something.
And we can pray and act until our political leaders do the same.

3 Romans 6:1-4.
4 This quote is cited several places online, and I suspect it is accurate or at least representative of Pope Francis’
thought. One example is here:
My friends, children keep dying. The gospel of Jesus Christ shows us a
better way. It is not too late. Not out of fear, but out of love, it is time to do
something. It is time to begin living with the newness of life and in a new and
better, in a gospel-filled world.
Let us pray, using the words of one of my seminary professors, in a prayer
entitled “The Last Day”:
“Almighty God, give us the grace to avoid the darkness and to participate in
those radiant enterprises of rescuing and rejoicing done in this world in the
name of Jesus Christ. And on the last day, when the son of man shall come
in glorious majesty to banish all darkness, evil, and death forever, may we
and all humankind stand before him in gratitude and peace. In Christ’s
name, we pray.


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