Sermon Text

January 20, 2013 11:15 AM • Epiphany II

Sermon

The Very Rev. Gary Hall

The Very Rev. Gary Hall

The Very Rev. Gary Hall

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch. [Isaiah 62:1]

There are eight steps that lead up into this pulpit. Every time I ascend these steps I remember that, on March 31, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his final sermon from this very place. Four days after he preached here at Washington National Cathedral, Dr. King was killed by an assassin wielding a gun.

If we want to stand with Jesus and with Martin Luther King, we’ve also got to stand with those who, like them, die by means of violence.

The sermon Dr. King preached that morning was a call to the faith community to wake up to the world around us. He titled the sermon, “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” and he asked that all Christians join in the ongoing struggles against racism, poverty, and especially violence. As he said, “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” He also said, “We must find an alternative to war and bloodshed.” As a student of Gandhi and a follower of Jesus, Dr. King had made nonviolence central to both his theology and his practice as a Civil Rights leader. Four days before he died by means of gunfire, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in this pulpit and asked that we all reject violence.

I remember King’s assassination very well. It happened in Holy Week, and it’s one of the events that first compelled me, as a college freshman, to go to church. I’ve always had an aversion to guns, even though I have been pretty much sheltered from them and no real sense of what it feels like to be faced with one. As I was driving to a meeting last week, I heard NPR’s Terry Gross interview the actor Dustin Hoffman, and I was surprised to learn that Hoffman has refused for a very long time to carry a gun on screen. His refusal comes as a result of having been threatened at gunpoint when he was a younger man. Here is part of what he said:

I don’t think people understand what it’s like to have a gun pointed at you. I remember when it happened to me … Every split second you’re feeling the bullet go right through you. … I was aware of how easy that finger is to just touch this thing called a trigger and it’s all over. [Fresh Air, January 17, 2013]

As I listened to Hoffman talk about his experience at the wrong end of a gun, I thought of this season of Epiphany and our gospel reading for today. The season of Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God’s glory in the world. Today’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ changing water into wine at a marriage feast in Cana of Galilee. There are many possible ways to interpret this story, but to me it has always been about the way everyday stuff can reveal the transcendent glory of the divine hidden within it. In the presence of Jesus, water becomes wine. The ordinary becomes a window in to the extraordinary. Here’s how John puts it at the end of the passage: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” [John 2:11]

The point of our Gospel today is not that Jesus is a magician. The point is that the glory that Jesus reveals in himself is God’s glory, and the big truth on offer here is that not only Jesus but all God’s precious human creatures similarly reflect and reveal that divine glory. Like water being transformed into wine, we are all, all of us, windows into the glory of God. That’s what we mean when we say that human beings are created in God’s image. That’s what we mean when we say that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. What Jesus reveals to us is that we are each particular incarnations, enfleshments of the divine. And so one thing today’s Gospel leads me to understand is the way in which every abuse or terrorization or threat or assault on a human being is also an attack on God.

We Christians follow someone who incarnated God perfectly on earth. We follow that same one who died at human hands by means of violence. The first thing I get as a preacher occupying Dr. King’s pulpit space on this Sunday is the link between Jesus and Dr. King and Newtown and you and me. Jesus was precious and he died because of violence. Dr. King was precious and he died because of violence. The first graders and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School were precious and they died because of violence. The urban kids who shoot each other on our streets are precious and they die by means of violence. You and I are precious, too, and we have the opportunity to resist violence, to stand with its victims and say “No more,” to call others into work and action to stop it, and to help heal the wounds of a nation that has already suffered too much because of it.

So in the spirit of Dr. King, I want to say that opposing gun violence may have political implications, but it is not primarily a political issue. It is a religious issue, a theological issue. Human beings are precious, unique, unrepeatable icons of God. We stand with God and for God’s values when we stand with and for the human beings who bear God’s glory into the world. And one of the ways we stand with and for them is to proclaim their dignity and worth and oppose all forces that threaten or oppress them. And right now one of the chief oppressive threats to human dignity in our world is the obscene proliferation of guns in America. If we want to stand with Jesus and with Martin Luther King, we’ve also got to stand with those who, like them, die by means of violence. And that means we who follow Jesus and stand with King have to stand against guns. That may sound like a hard truth, but for a Christian, there’s no way around it.

Christianity is not just about thinking good thoughts about God or admiring Jesus. It’s about loving God and following Jesus. And that means that as Christians we have not only blessings but obligations. If you don’t believe me, listen again to Dr. King:

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. … Nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the kind of soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference. [Martin Luther King, Jr. “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” WNC, March 31, 1968]

We at Washington National Cathedral have come to the end of the first part of our work, the preaching part. Now we are entering the next phase of our work, the organizing. Bishop Budde and I and our staff colleagues have spent the last month getting connected to other faith community and gun control leaders, many of whom have been doing this work far longer than we have. We have learned a lot from them. We also have something to contribute.

I believe we at the Cathedral need to get behind the President and Vice President’s recommendations on gun control legislation, supporting a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, supporting universal background checks, and supporting stiffer criminal penalties for those engaged in gun trafficking. We are joining with our interfaith partners to shape a strategy by which all of us can bring pressure to bear on legislators around the country to support these three common sense consensual goals. As that strategy emerges, we will ask that you join in that work of moving the legislation forward. As President Obama said last week,

This will not happen unless the American people demand it. If parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, if hunters and sportsmen, if responsible gun owners, if Americans of every background stand up and say, enough; we’ve suffered too much pain and care too much about our children to allow this to continue—then change will come. That’s what it’s going to take. … The only way we can change is if the American people demand it. [Presidential Press Conference on Gun Control, January 16, 2013]

As the National Cathedral, we are a visible faith community in a symbolic building. We have a unique role in American religious life. We represent what is best in American civic life—we stand at the intersection of faithful and civic values. It is vital that we use our visibility and our symbolic role to keep the need for gun control squarely in the public eye. As the leader of this wonderful place, I commit myself to that work and ask you to join me as the legislative process moves forward. We can make Washington National Cathedral a visible focus of our shared commitment and so help end our national tragic scourge of gun violence.

Tomorrow is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is also the day on which we inaugurate the president and vice president. The day after tomorrow the Cathedral will host the 57th Inaugural Prayer Service. As President Obama begins his second term, I can think of no better way for this Cathedral to support him in this work than to reaffirm our commitment to Dr. King’s vision of an America characterized by justice, equality, and peace.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch. [Isaiah 62:1]

Amen.