Summit Presbyterian Church
February 18, 2018
Mark 1: 9-15
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, those 40 days of self examination, study and repentance when we prepare for the joy of Easter. The number 40’s no accident. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before starting his public ministry. The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness after they escaped slavery in Egypt and before they entered the promised land. The gospels are clear: when Jesus was in the wilderness he resisted the temptations of Satan. He relied on God and God’s angels, even as he was among the wild beasts. The Israelites did not: in their long, frightening, sojourn they murmured against God. They doubted the faithfulness of the one who led them out of Egypt; they complained against their leader Moses. And in one famous incident, when Moses had gone up to Mt. Sinai again, and it looked like he was never coming back, they turned to an idol. A calf of gold they made themselves, but also, they thought, a god who would lead them out of the wilderness. It was a delusion, but a comforting one, as they gave their gold earrings for this small-g god they could see and touch, and as they feasted in its honor. Neither the golden calf nor its worshippers came to a happy end, but that’s another story. You can read it in Exodus 32.
We, of course, are more like the Israelites than Jesus. Faith is a struggle for us, and we’re easily enticed by idols. Those things in which we put a trust that should be reserved for God. Those human creations that promise things they can’t deliver, and draw us away from Christ. Lent is a fitting time to look at those idols, to name them, to put them in their proper place. I’m going to talk about one of them today. Guns.
As a nation, we’re devoted to our guns. Now, you may be thinking, I don’t own a gun. Or that I’m painting with too broad a brush; not even gun owners are all devoted to guns. And that’s true. But it’s also true that many people — gun owners and observers - place a trust in guns they don’t deserve, and invest guns with a meaning they can’t carry (Did anyone get that pun?). . . . Dan Baum, a self-described liberal, registered democrat wrote an essay several years ago called “Happiness is a Worn Gun.” Baum was the contented owner of a hunting rifle. He took pleasure in the “elegant design” and “exquisitely manufactured” instrument. (I get that — I’ve never held a gun but I’ve seen Antiques Roadshow and those cool civil war rifles). But as more people began to carry, he got jealous. He only took out his rifle a few times a year. He saw people living the gun life, as he put it, and he wanted to live that life, too. So he brought a handgun and went to classes to get a concealed carry permit. He then described what living the gun life meant to him, and what it seemed to mean to his classmates. For many, carrying a gun wasn’t just about the gun: it meant being patriotic, self-reliant, active, vigilant; a rural outdoorsman rather than a latte-sipping urbanite; useful rather than a parasite; strong rather than weak.. (Just for the record, being able to carry this way is a white privilege). Baum soon discovered carrying changed his life; he felt differently about himself. As he put it, “It has militarized my life; all that locking and loading and watching over my shoulder makes me feel like a bit player in the perpetual global war in which we find ourselves. There’s no denying that carrying a gun has made my days a lot more dramatic. Suddenly, I’m dangerous. I’m an action figure. I bear a lethal secret into every social encounter.” Now Baum decided that overall, there were more negatives than positives to carrying a gun. His story is not everyone’s story. But he describes the promise that every idol makes: It will protect us. It will transform us. It will turn us into the people we want to be. It will give our life meaning and direction. It will lead us out of the wilderness. Now, to be fair, there’s an anti-gun version of this idolatry. An idolatry in which righteousness is imputed to us because of our stance against guns, a stance in which we may also find our lives and identities transformed. And we’re all complicit in a mild idolatry as we enjoy a steady diet of gun-centered entertainment and vicariously live the gun life.
Now, guns are one idol in a very crowded field. We also look to new kitchens to transform our lives. But guns are an especially destructive idol because guns do one thing reliably. They kill. As Baum said, “I have to remind myself occasionally that my gun is not a prop, a political statement, or a rhetorical device, but an instrument designed to blow a ragged channel through a human being.” And although there may be times when such a ragged channel is necessary, more often we have Parkland, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Columbine, a child who found their parents’ pistol in a drawer, a woman shot by her husband, a cop who kills himself, a teenager lying dead on the street.
It’s hard to resist this idol. Our idolatry is fueled by fear — and we have reason to fear in this violent world. It’s fueled by a feeling of powerlessness — and the power that a gun gives can be especially attractive for folks who feel their place in the world has slipped.* It’s fueled by a longing for meaning and community — Baum discovered that when he met other men who carried, they’d say: “Good for you! Keep it up! God bless you!” But guns offer a false security, an empty power, a community that will not hold. Because a world in which everyone is armed to the teeth, when any encounter can turn deadly, is a world where people will be more fearful and vulnerable. It's a world that does not resemble the Kingdom of God.
In one of our Presbyterian Creeds, the Brief Statement of Faith, we say the Holy Spirit gives us the courage to unmask idolatries in church and culture. Well, it’s time we found that courage. To tell the truth about guns and expose their false promises. To point to God as the true source of security and well-being. To invite people into relationship with Jesus, where we find our true identity as a beloved child of God. To proclaim that we find true meaning in service to others, not power over them, and that in the church all may find a beloved community. It’s time to proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand; a kingdom of peace, and justice and love for all people. It’s not yet fully here. We have to work with each other to witness to it. But guns will not bring it closer.
Now you may be asking: is Cheryl saying that Christians can’t own guns? No — and I’d like to go back to the example of statues. From the days of the early church, Christians made paintings and statues of Christ and of God. Other Christians have pointed out the dangers of such icons. They can become the objects of worship, rather than the divine to which they point. From time to time, iconoclasts have gone on statue-smashing, picture slashing rampages. And although some Christian traditions avoid images of the divine, most of the church has sensibly made peace with them. We recognize that, with care, statues and images do not need to become golden calves. I’d say the same about guns. I, personally, would argue for more restrictions rather than less, even for disarming, but it’s not all or nothing. There’s a non-idolatrous place for guns in hunting, in sports, in law enforcement. As a practical matter, we can chip away at their power. Proper background checks and the banning of assault weapons would be a perfectly fine place to start. When either side hides behind the all or nothing argument it just shows the grip this idol has on our imagination and our hearts.
So, what will you give up for Lent? I suggest an idol. That collectively, we start with guns. And when we’re tempted by those shiny, polished objects; when trusting in God does not seem like enough to keep us safe, we can look to Jesus. Jesus, who was baptized in water and the Holy Spirit, and with whom we’re joined in our baptism. Jesus, who ministers to us when we’re in the wilderness. Jesus, who never took up the sword and who proclaimed, “The Kingdom of God has come near! Repent, and believe in the good news.”