AN UNDELIVERED HOMILY ON GUN VIOLENCE: WHOSE WORDS WILL WE FOLLOW? by Priest James K. Graham

A homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (this past Sunday in the Melkite Church, tomorrow in the Orthodox Church).

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1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 14:14-22

More than thirty-five people were shot and killed in the USA last weekend by solitary shooters wielding assault-style guns.

They were shot in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; a bar in Dayton, Ohio; a park in Chicago, Illinois.

Just a few days earlier, another lone gunman killed more people at the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California.

These figures just count the dead; they don’t include the wounded. They don’t include the devastated family members and friends. They don’t include the traumatized bystanders and first responders, and the terrified community members. They don’t count the orphaned children and the children and parents who are suffering nightmares.

And these are only the latest brutal mass shootings. We cannot forget the high school in Parkland, Florida, or the nightclub in Orlando, Florida, or the synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and San Diego, California, or the church in Charleston, South Carolina, or many others.

One thing these shootings have in common—other than guns, the guns that are commonly called “assault-style” weapons—is words, messages delivered at rallies, in tweets and other social media, on websites. These messages incite, inflame, and encourage fear, resentment, hatred, racism, white nationalism, and violence. 

And the public face of these incendiary words is the face of Donald J. Trump, the President of the United States.

In contrast, we Christians are called to be informed, inspired, and, yes, inflamed, by the words and actions of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Lord, God, and Savior.

Consider, for example, the Apostolos and Gospel readings for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost—1 Corinthians 1:10-18 and Matthew 14:14-22.

St Paul writes: 

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose (1:10).*

On this Sunday, we also read the story of the multiplication of the five loaves and two fishes to feed 5,000 men, not counting women and children. Here Jesus does two things:  out of compassion He cures the sick and then He feeds the multitude. The Evangelist does not record whatever words Jesus preached.

What a sad contrast between the situation in our country and the teaching of Scripture!

Instead of unity, we have division and factionalism and polarization. We cannot even unite to save people from mass murder and terrorism. We cannot unite to heal the sick and feed the hungry.

Although St. Matthew doesn’t quote Jesus’ preaching on the lakeshore, we know that the huge crowd would not have stayed all day if He did not feed them with words as well as with loaves and fishes. And we know His teachings from the abundant witness of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the Gospels, and of Paul in his epistles.

So let us examine what the President does and says and what our Lord does and says.

  • The Trump Administration has cut or proposed to cut eligibility for school lunches, food stamps, and health care.
  • Moved with compassion, Jesus directed His disciples to share their food with the hungry crowd, everyone ate and was satisfied, and there were abundant leftovers. He also taught people to “give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (Lk 6:30).  Jesus also spent all that day by the lake—and much of His ministry—healing the sick and disabled.
  • Trump encouraged his followers at a rally to chant, “Send them back!” and has vigorously pursued anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies, including mass arrests and deportations and detention camps, even separating children from their parents with no provision for reuniting them. 
  • Jesus tells us that when we welcome strangers, we welcome Him (Mt 25:35).
  • Likewise, Trump has not only imprisoned many refugees and immigrants, but has promoted the slogan “Lock her up!” referring to Hilary Clinton, who was not charged or tried or convicted of a crime. 
  • Jesus, to the contrary, said at the outset of His public ministry, quoting the Prophet Isaiah, that God “has sent me to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free” (Lk 4:18, cf. Is 61:1).
  • Trump’s words incite fear.  Fear of minorities “coming to take your jobs,” fear that foreigners want to “destroy your way of life,” fear that Mexicans are “bad people, criminals and rapists,” fear that people of color seek to “replace” white culture.
  • Jesus Christ tells us repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), He elaborates: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear….  Strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Mt 6:25, 33).

If we are truly followers of Jesus Christ, and if we truly want to end gun violence and the hatred, fear, xenophobia, and racism that inflame it, we do nothing else than embrace the words and actions of the Son of God and reject the words and actions of the President of the United States.

We must live by the words of Jesus Christ: In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the Prophets (Mt. 7:12, cf. Lk 6:31).

*Scriptural quotations from the NRSV.

Father James K. Graham is the pastor of St Joseph Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Lansing MI. He holds a BA in English and American literature from Cowell College at the University of California in Santa Cruz, an MA in English from California State University in Sacramento, and an MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline MA and St. Gregory the Theologian Melkite Greek Catholic Seminary in Newton Center MA. From 2012 to 2019 he served as copy editor for SOPHIA, the journal of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, and has written for Orthodoxy in Dialogue. In 2018 he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ptiesthood.

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