The images keep being replayed on television, in the newspapers, online, and in my head. They are of violence brought on by hatred, bigotry, loss of identity and fear. The heartbreaking event in Orlando last Sunday morning can’t help but to bring to mind so many other random acts of violence we have witnessed and wept over – acts of terrorism, domestic and foreign. Like others who have made similar choices, Omar Mateen wanted us to think he was a warrior of holiness. Instead he was filled with hatred, made choices that can never be undone, murdered men and women who had so much to offer the world, their community and their loved ones.
Yet again we have been brutally reminded of the evil in our world, how fragile life is and how precious those we love. Demonic possession is not something we talk about much except when we are watching Friday the 13th movies, TV shows or sometimes like today in stories from the Bible. However, we do know from experience the power of evil. We have seen it in our life times in genocide rampant in China, Russia, Germany, the Sudan, Nigeria, Rwanda, Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and the list goes on.
Violence is about taking away from people their God given gift of life. Terrorism is about random acts of violence against innocent people, acts intended to diminish our capacity to hope and dream, acts intended to cause paralyzing fear that keeps us chained like the man filled with a legion of demons who Jesus set free on that hillside on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.
I dare to speak about such random violence because I have experienced it – lost family members not to the hatred and bigotry experienced in Orlando and San Bernardino but to violence every bit as random; and I know that some of you have as well. It is a family’s worst nightmare. That phone call was heart breaking and terrible. How? Why? The young man who murdered my niece and great nephew lived around the block, went to the same school, wrestled on the wrestling team with Jim had been in their home and yet he made such different choices, ending the possibilities for his own life as well as ending the lives of two other wonderful individuals and changing forever the lives of all who loved them. He did not go to a gun store and buy a gun but when he broke into the house searching for items to sell for drugs he found a gun my father had given my nephew many years before and in the process took two precious lives.
In our own city there have been 27 people murdered – twice as many in 2016 to date as there were a year ago and so many others whose lives were changed forever. We all know that it is not about statistics but about people we love, members of our families, our children and their friends and loved ones. It is about relationships, hopes, dreams and possibilities that have been ended tragically. Each death reminds us of the preciousness of every single life. There are no spare lives! Our job as followers of the way of Jesus is to seek ways of changing the situation in whatever – even the smallest way — that is open to us.
In a sermon preached a few weeks ago, my dear friend The Rev. Frank Wade spoke about the porous nature of death. He said “it is an ending and a beginning, a continuum, a point where things end but do not stop. People die, so do relationships, ambitions, eras, traditions, assumptions, aspirations, youth, institutions, dreams and memories. They all end but they do not stop. That is the somewhat hard and bumpy truth….. The fact is that life in all of its forms and death in all of its forms are in God’s hands. We are accountable to God for how we manage life and how we respond to death, how we begin and how we end. ” (The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade: Sermon preached at Church of the Holy Trinity, Phil. PA, June 5, 2016)
We must take care not to engage in random acts of violence ourselves. In our baptismal covenant, we have promised to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being – there are no spare lives! We are charged with bringing the peace of God into every event. When we do that we find that we are living in hope of what could be rather than in fear of what might be and only then we are freed from the grip of evil.
We have prayed and must keep praying for those who were killed last Sunday and in San Bernardino, Charleston, Fort Hood, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Columbine, and New York – as well as for their families and those who loved them and those who killed them. We need to pray for our leaders as they discern their way over the next several years, praying for one another as we face this challenge. We need to pray for those who hate us. It doesn’t mean that we cannot hold accountable those who have caused each outrage, we must for the sake of our world.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition one of the prayers prayed every night is “Lord, we pray for those who hate us …. and those who love us.” The Orthodox Christians know much about enemies having experienced years of life under repressive Communist and Muslim regimes. If we were to pray for peace, to pray for those who hate us and the enemies of all those we love, I believe it would shape us as a people to be Christ’s presence in this hate filled and divided world.
Luke’s Gospel account today tells of the only time Jesus crossed over into predominantly Gentile territory – he crossed the boundary that no good Jewish rabbi would cross. It was his first and his last foray into Gentile territory. It probably represents Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations ” and the struggles of the early followers of the way of Jesus to carry out his command. The Apostle Paul had to remind his readers in Galicia, in Rome, and in Corinth that there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free.
In the midst of the horror God has wept with us and God has sought us in every dark and desperate place, even in the twisted rubble and among the carnage, showing us that love is greater than hatred. It is in the midst of being reminded of the lack of peace in the world that we are preparing to send our beloved rector off to the other side of the Potomac River, to serve God in a city that knows even more violence than Richmond and a Cathedral that has the presence to address the issues.
With the bishop of the Diocese of Washington, Randy will be the face of the Episcopal Church in our nation’s capital. He will hear the Cathedral bells calling the faithful to prayer and walk past the Peace Cross which over looks the city that is the heart of our nation’s identity. He will address the nation at times of crisis and celebration. He will undoubtedly smile as he watches children from the Cathedral Schools and tourists lovingly reach out to touch the hand of the bronze statue of Jesus in the Children’s chapel knowing that the future is in their hands.
Randy, your ministry here at St. James’s is ending but it will not stop. The gifts of your preaching, your teaching, your pastoral presence, your passion for God and your sure and certain knowledge that you are God’s beloved child and together we are called to be doers of God’s word not hearers only – those gifts will not stop. In other stories of Jesus encounters, he issued an invitation, “Come, follow me.” In this case Jesus said: “declare how much God has done for you.” The story is one of commissioning, a call to ministry.
Randy you are being called to a new ministry, a beginning even as this ministry among us is ending. As you preach and teach in our nation’s capital, continue to declare how much God has done for you; continue to share your passion for God and your knowledge that we are all God’s beloved children, black and white, male and female, gay and straight, native American or foreign born; continue to share the spirit of the living God that fills you with peace and work in every way however small to bring peace to this hate filled and divided world. As you walk through the Nave in the late afternoon when the sun streams through the Rose Window, dancing on the pillars of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, remember that you are being held in our prayers.
Randy, it has been a joy and a privilege to serve God in this place with you and now may God grant us all a longing for peace, a thirst for justice, and a willingness to give of ourselves in the spirit of Christ. Amen
Reverend Randolph Marshall Hollerith - June 26, 2016
Rev. Hollerith's Final Sermon
From Series: "Sermon"
Sermon delivered at the worship service for St. James's Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA