Epiphany 6C, Sunday, February 17, 2019

Deacon Sue Nebel 

It has happened again. The words you never want to hear again, but you are afraid you will: There has been a shooting. This time it was close to home, in Aurora, a suburb west of us. Five people killed. Six first responders and several others injured. A nearby school on soft lockdown. Once again, names and faces. Stories of lives cut short. The pain and grief of loved ones of those who died. All this happening in a week when we remembered the shooting one year ago at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. And on the same date, February 14 in 2008, shootings at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. 

It is all too familiar. TV images of the building where the shootings happened, surrounded by police cars. Reporters repeating over and over again the scant information they have.  Parents at the school, picking up their children and holding them tight. I found myself thinking of and praying for the people who had loved ones working in that warehouse. The anxiety of not knowing. Waiting for news, whether good or bad. Then, a press conference where the Aurora Chief of Police calmly and stoically gave a chronology of the events of the afternoon. She confirmed the number of people killed and police officers injured. She also announced that the shooter had been killed. Governor Pritzker, only in office a short time and facing his first major tragedy, spoke. Clearly he was struggling to address the event. He said, “There are no words for the kind of evil that robs our neighbors of their hopes, their dreams, and their futures. There are no words to express our gratitude to the officers who were wounded in the line of duty as they responded to the gravest kind of danger they could face.” Despite the governor’s claim of having no words for the mass shooting in Aurora, he managed to find some eloquent and heartfelt ones.

Yes, words seem to be inadequate. They may fail to express what we are thinking and feeling in the face of such tragedy.  Yet, words are what we have. Words are what we search for in the chaos of confusion and strong emotion. Words help us to wrap our minds around events that overwhelm us. They may be the words of someone else, like a news reporter or a police chief. Or they may be our own words. The first thing crisis response professionals do in tragic events like accidents, destruction, or loss of life is to say to the people who were present: “Tell me what happened.” Thus begins a process of shaping of containing the event. A process of healing. Gradually, step by step, moving from a place where one is part of an external event to a place where that event has become part of oneself. The memories and the emotional scars are still there. Things like a car backfiring or the sound of fireworks can cause the memories to surface, but they no longer overwhelm.

On Thursday, I heard an interview with a woman who was a student at Columbine High School in Colorado at the time of the mass shooting there twenty years ago. The interview was part of National Public Radio’s marking of the anniversary of the Parkland shootings. Now 38 years old and the mother of a teenage daughter, she was able to clearly recount the events of that day as she had experienced them. She also talked about her own healing process. She experienced panic and painful memories. She needed professional help, as well as loving support from family and others. She acknowledged that other school shootings since then often sparked strong emotional reactions,  but she had reached a point where she could handle them. She related how, when she judged that her daughter was old enough to understand, she told her about what she had experienced. She wanted her daughter to know, so that in the moments when her mother seemed overly anxious about her when she was away from home, she could understand the source of that feeling. The memories and the pain never go away completely, she said. They are part of her.

In face of events like the shootings in Aurora, we search for words. We also search for understanding. Almost immediately the questions begin. Who did it? Why? The name of the shooter was revealed quickly: Gary Martin. Because he died in a gunfire exchange with police, we may never have clear answers. Sadly, a familiar profile has begun to emerge. A angry employee, upset because he had been told he was fired. A troubled past. A gun he should not have owned. But lapses or errors in background checks and follow-up procedures let him have it—and keep it. Once again, the issue of gun control and licensing comes to the forefront of our attention, crying for action. 

In the midst of our deep shock and sadness, we search for something positive. Some beacon of light in the darkness. We search for hope. Today’s Gospel lesson gives us the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. The Beatitudes. Blessings. Jesus says to the people gathered around him:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Comfort for those who are suffering, in need. A promise of something better. Hope. The third Beatitude, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” is so poignant. The loved ones with a huge whole in their hearts and their lives. The employees in the warehouse who witnessed the shootings but escaped harm. The possibility of laughter, of joy seem a long way off, perhaps impossible, to them at this point in time. But that is my hope for them: that they will heal and experience joy again.

What can we do in the face of these tragic events? Aurora is some distance away from here, but the victims, their loved ones, and the people of the city of Aurora are our sisters and brothers. They are children of God, part of the human family.  There is another one of the Beatitudes that has kept repeating in my mind since the events of Friday. It is found in the version of the Beatitudes found in Matthew. It says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” What can we do? We can give comfort. We have sent messages of support to the two Episcopal parishes in Aurora. We can do what we always do. We can pray. We can pray as a community for those who have died and their loved ones. We can carry the families and friends in our hearts in the week ahead, as they bury the dead.   

Tonight people in the city of Aurora will gather for a vigil. Candles will be lit. Names will be read. Prayers will be offered. Because of distance and weather, we cannot be there.  But in solidarity with them, we can read the names of those who died. Right here, right now. I will read six names: the names of the victims and the shooter. Yes, even the shooter.  Although he committed an evil act, Gary Martin is a child of God, loved by God. As I read the each name I ask you to remember. Remember that person had a life, a life that was cut short. Remember that person has a story. Remember that person will be missed.

[Note: There were six unlit votive candles on the altar.  As each name was read, a candle was lit.]

Let us honor and remember: Russell Beyer, Vincente Juarez, Clayton Parks, Josh Pinkard, Trevor Wehner, Gary Martin.

May God enfold them in love and give them peace. Amen.

Epiphany 6; Year C

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26