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Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: “Show Up. Be Real.”
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
“Pace e bene!” “Peace and goodness to you!” In honor of his feast day, I greet you with the words that Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone—Saint Francis of Assisi—used to begin all his sermons.
My intention was to preach this morning on the bond between Francis and his spiritual soulmate, Chiara Offreducio—Saint Clare of Assisi. On what it means to be, in the Celtic tradition, anam cara, or a soul friend.
But once again I was compelled to set aside the message I’d prepared for this Sunday to respond to a mass shooting. This time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.
The same thing happened when I prepared my message in December 2012—when 20 children and 6 adults were fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. And again, four months later, in April 2013—when the Boston Marathon became a bloody massacre. And again, in January of this year—when the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo were filled with bullets and bodies.
Here I am again. With a very raw sermon. With a very heavy heart. And with a devout obligation to speak with you about another violent tragedy. Here I am again.
Today we mourn 10 dead and 9 injured in yet another school shooting. Since the December 2012 killings in Newtown, there have been at least 142 school shootings in America—meaning that a firearm was discharged inside a school building or on school or campus grounds, as documented by the press or confirmed by law enforcement.
142 shootings. At elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, tech schools, community colleges, colleges and universities. This is an average of nearly one per week.
In 2015 alone, there have been 45 school shootings. To be clear, if I had wanted to respond to each one from this pulpit this year, I would not have had enough Sundays.
Truth to tell, I am both tired of this obligation to respond to violence and absolutely committed to do so. Because nothing serves the spirit of my beloved Francis more.
His was a rough journey in a violent society. Before he became the voice of peace, young Francesco was an agent of slaughter―riding off from Assisi, in an adventure of war, to kill the neighboring people of Perugia.
Captured for ransom, he spent a transforming year in prison, listening to God. Isolated, extremely sick, he was forced to reflect on the cost of violence, stripped of all its glamor.
Since Newtown, I’ve seen a lot of young men in prison just like Francis—rethinking violence. Because it was the direct horror of Newtown that propelled me into the Alternatives to Violence Project in Lovelock prison. This, by far, is the most transforming and hopeful work I’ve ever done.
So, as your soul friend this morning, I want to share something of what I’ve learned through this work since December 2012. To shift the culture of violence, my mantra is “Show up. Be real.”
When a horrific act of national violence happens, we first need to face it. News like this hurts. Public killings anywhere in America—from movie theaters to malls, and especially in places of worship and schools—undermine our basic sense of security.
We can choose to go numb, as President Obama acknowledged. We can turn away, click away, get distracted. Or we can become so fearful that we begin to see enemies and danger everywhere—and retreat from life. Or we can become violent ourselves, taking extreme political positions, fueling our anger with or without the facts.
If we choose numbness, fear, or anger, we cut ourselves off from experiencing the sadness of this tragedy. And when we bypass pain, it stays with us.
We need to show up to our own sadness, to our country’s illness, in order to heal.
And so I encourage you to face this latest national tragedy and pray about it. Come to our healing service on Tuesday at 5:30. Ask God to comfort all those who are in grief and loss—including yourself. If you’re confused, say so to God. If you need reassurance, ask for it. At a time of horror, come close to the Source of all that is good.
This is the lesson we learn from Job today—who stayed in intimate conversation (nd argument) with God through all his joy and through all his terrible suffering. To heal, you have to show up to God just as you are. And be real about your humanity.
How does showing up in this authentic way shift the culture of violence? We stay connected to who we are at heart. And to each other.
I was struck by a sketchy description of the young Oregon shooter as “bitter” and “isolated,” marked by signs of despair. James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has studied and written about mass murderers, says they tend to be “people in social isolation with a lack of support systems to help them through hard times and give them a reality check.”
This fits. Each time I listen to the stories of violent offenders at Lovelock prison, I’m devastated by the terrible effect of isolation in their lives. Long before they were incarcerated, before they committed any crime, many of these men were cut off as children: from any steady adult presence, from any kind and consistent source of support, from any sign that there was a group or a God who noticed or cared about their safety and well-being.
As children, they were disconnected from fundamental steps in developing confidence, in developing trust, in developing faith. Their isolation fed frustration and the rage of violence.
Knowing these stories, I now believe that my greatest influence in the Alternatives to Violence prison workshops is my simple presence. My willingness to enter a circle of inmates. Communicating to these men, before I speak, without words, that their lives matter―just as Jesus reached out to the children who were being cut off from his presence.
Reaching them eye to eye, heart to heart, human to human.
I’ve heard it again and again from inmates, with a sense of wonder: “You’re free to be anywhere you’d like to be today, doing anything you’d like to do, and you chose to be here with us.”
So I’ve seen it first hand in the most broken setting: simple human connection starts healing. Across barriers of age, class, language, race, sexual orientation, gender—tatoos. Across defenses of toughness, fear, prejudice, blame, insecurity.
We interrupt patterns of distrust and violence when we’re committed enough, honest enough, loving enough, to show up and be real. To connect to the most vulnerable and the most cut off. As Francis did. As Jesus did.
I believe gun policy changes are needed to make this country—and our children--safer. Whatever your opinions on this issue, I encourage you to improve the debate rather than inflame it by becoming more informed. Seek out points of view and data that challenge your assumptions. Calm angry conversations with your evenness. Engage as a vocal advocate and voter in the reforms you think are wise.
The Religious Alliance in Nevada, a public interest advocacy group for the Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches, is a good source on gun issues going before the state legislature, as Bishop Dan reminded me this week.
But I invite you to think more widely—about supporting other changes that can create pathways for peace, especially in our young.
Next week, at our Sunday Forum and in our service announcements, we’re going to hear from Roberta Klein, the founder of a successful program for elementary school students called “Read with Me.” Children who are struggling with reading, who are struggling with English, who need extra support, are teamed with adult volunteers who are willing to sit with them, one to one, after school and listen to them read.
To say, through their consistent and friendly presence, you matter in this world. You are not alone. You can succeed. Your school is safe, and your community is a good support system—that you can count on as you go through life.
How do we heal our sadness this morning? How do we shift the culture of violence in our country? How do we create peace? I say it’s through simple yet profound connections from the heart.
Pace e bene. Show up. Be real. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada
October 4, 2015