“The Gift of Hospitality,” October 4, Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Every now and then in a minister’s work, it happens that the bright and charming sermon you were going to write says, “Later!” and flies away on gossamer wings, while a different sermon dumps itself like a sack of mud oozing in front of your keyboard, and refuses to leave until it has been given voice. This was that kind of week. Not to speak of the events in Oregon feels like a form of denial, when we are all holding it heavily in our minds and hearts – all the more heavily because it is so not unprecedented, so dreadfully and enragingly and helplessly familiar.
Dearly Beloved, if there were anything inspiring, or comforting, or redeeming to say, wiser voices than mine would have said it. Is it appalling to find ourselves politicizing the senseless deaths of young people and the fathomless pain of families in the service of making a point, yet again, about guns? Surely it is. Can we hear this news without our minds turning instantly to the question of guns? I for one cannot. Should we have more common sense limits on the availability of guns in this nation? I do believe so. Would those limits prevent people like Chris Harper Mercer, and Dylan Roof, and Adam Lanza from carrying out their ghastly intentions? I wish I thought so, but I don’t.
These young men, whose alienation, despair, anger, narcissism, and glorification of violence interact to inspire them with the desire to kill random other people, could easily find other tools to gratify that deadly urge. Sensible gun control laws would lessen the likelihood of people in general shooting themselves and each other by accident; they might prevent impulsive gunfire in the emotional heat of argument; they could make guns less handy as a way of pursuing a personal grudge or committing a financially motivated crime – all of this would be a good thing, a great improvement, I have no doubt. I am less convinced that it would protect us from the twisted quest for vindication and glory that seems to motivate the kind of mass shootings with which we have become sadly familiar during my lifetime.
You may hear some statistics about ‘school shootings’ that makes this kind of thing seem even more frighteningly common than it actually is. Students do sometimes bring and use guns with the intent to ‘settle the score’ with specific other students who have bullied them, or with a particular teacher who they perceive as unfair. That is a somewhat different scenario; in such cases, the shooter doesn’t usually plan to die in the process, nor is it their object to kill as many arbitrary victims as they can. When a loaded gun in a kindergartner’s backpack accidentally discharges on the playground, that’s appalling – and it may indeed be an argument in favor of gun control, — but it’s not the same thing. When two school custodians get in a fight, and shoot each other, that is a horrifyingly bad example, to be sure, and it is a shooting, at a school, but it is not another version of what just happened at Umpqua, or at Sandy Hook. Depending upon whose criteria you accept, there have been something between 15 and 35 similar incidents of shootings at schools between Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, and last Thursday. In my view, that number is quite sufficiently incredible, and heart-wrenching, and infuriating. And it doesn’t even count Emanuel AME in Charleston, because that was a church, not a school.
We can, and we should, work to keep guns out of the hands of bullied 12 year olds, and drug-dealing out of our high schools, but my guess is that none of that will stop young adults crazed with social isolation, emotional pain, and impotent rage from acting out their fantasies. It will not prevent the anomie, the detachment from human connection, the failure of meaning and purpose, that makes someone feel that the only significant action available to them is killing other people.
You have to start with the possibility of the organic. Some of you no doubt remember Charles Joseph Whitman, who on August 1, 1966, climbed to the clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin with a high powered rifle and killed 16 people. Having unsuccessfully sought both medical and psychiatric help in the preceding months, he left among his suicidal ramblings a request that an autopsy be performed on his body. Medical examiners found a tumor in his brain the size of a pecan, which may have been pressing on the amygdala; the part of the limbic system that regulates emotions and survival instincts. The science of the time did not allow them to say with certainty whether this growth would have been ‘responsible for his actions’; my guess is that fifty years later, we could perhaps more precisely identify its possible effects. Brain chemistry is a delicate proposition, with the potential for violence and paranoia always lurking in the background of our evolutionary heritage; when the complex regulators fail, it may be no one’s fault but our collective ignorance of how to intervene effectively.
On the other hand, it may also be true that people who are well connected to a meaningful social network of accountability and care, who have articulate values and moral heroes and a sense of purpose, are more likely to deal with even the organic dysfunctions of the brain in different ways. And this is why religious communities matter – seriously matter. What we are doing here is not a luxury, a sort of frill to decorate our real lives if we happen to have the time; no, building the respectful, caring communities that will not let angry young men just fall through the cracks of society is one of the most significant, life-saving efforts any of us can be engaged in. I’m not saying that we do it all that well, here at All Souls, but I do think it’s a question we ought to be asking ourselves, about our culture in general, and our culture here in this congregation: how do we construct a world that does not valorize violence, but offers a vessel for our urge to change the brokenness all around us?
It seems to me that there is a painful idealism that accompanies emerging adulthood, when we start to imagine taking our place as a responsible adult in our society. We want power, and we want to be taken seriously; we want to prove our capacity; we want to be noble. Young people have always been preferred as soldiers, not only because they are at the height of their physical prowess and stamina, but also because they dream of doing important, definitive, challenging things; because they yearn for honor and identity, and sacrifice makes sense to them. I actually think that impulse lives on in all of us, whatever our ages, but it gets overlaid with practicality, and with nuance; with compassion for others, and awareness of our own shortcomings; with responsibilities that we undertake, like parenthood, or professional commitments, which mean that our lives are no longer our own to dispose of; and with historical perspective, that shows us how rarely anything is as morally clear cut as we would like it to be.
Yet I remember very clearly how deeply I wanted to experience my own ordination to the ministry, at the age of 25, in this way – as a whole-hearted giving of myself, not to the all too human institution of the UUA and its real life churches, but to the ideals that it stood for, and taught. I wanted the inner flame that burned white in my soul to shine through visibly to others; I wanted them not so much to be happy for me, as to be in awe of the intensity of my commitment. *I* wanted to be in awe of my commitment; of the importance of what I was committing myself to. I could have been a martyr, a nun, a terrorist. Of course, the practice of ministry actually is rarely about the white flame in the soul; it is more often about compromise, and wisdom, and maturity. Like life.
Yet we discount that white flame at our peril, especially where it burns so near the dry tinder of fear, and pain, and anger in the souls of the young, especially in a culture that celebrates heroic violence, scorns weakness, and projects ambiguity and blame onto others. It’s like so many other difficult and vulnerable topics in our society – if we don’t tell our children about sex, other people will, and it won’t be what we want them to know. If we don’t want to talk about god to kids in our Sunday School, the fundamentalist church down the block will send a bus to pick them up, to teach their version. And if we can’t give our young people ideals and a cause worthy of the last full measure of their devotion, they will find it in ISIL, or the Aryan Brotherhood, or even the IRA. When that hunger for significance gets connected with isolation born of social awkwardness and a lack of human connection, when frustration with the world is fueled by the intellectual appeal of conspiracy suspicions, by unhealed trauma, or by self-righteous self-absorption, it is volatile stuff. It may not need an actual brain tumor to trigger the descent into killing as a last, frantic bid for identity and impact on the world.
It occurs to me to wonder whether those pundits who blame ‘liberals’ for the recent spate of these events may not be right, in an odd sort of way. We have made a world in which we can no longer simply pack our troubled adolescents and that lethal impulse off to the crusades and the pogroms against the Jews; cannot gratify it with impunity against Native American tribes or negro neighborhoods. Even the army doesn’t want soldiers who aren’t in command of their inner compulsions. Since we liberals are striving to eliminate the role of designated victims, those to whom society as a whole will close its eyes when they are arbitrarily slaughtered, there is no one expendable left to kill; only those we cannot avoid recognizing as ourselves, as our own. I would actually be happy to think that
I had intended to talk about hospitality this morning, and why it is important not only to our survival as a congregation, but also to the authenticity of our continuing life together, that we get better at helping people we don’t know find welcome here. I believe that churches – all churches – are public institutions. We exist to help shape the culture of this city and this nation, to have an impact on what happens outside our walls and our parking lot, not just to entertain and comfort each other. We do that by making our ideals and our values public, by witnessing to them, by living them out loud. How would anyone know that we celebrate diversity, and acceptance of one another, unless it happens to them personally when they walk in our doors?
Listen again to the words of Parker Palmer; they could not be more appropriate for this dreadful week:
As our public experience dwindles, we come to regard “the public” either as an empty abstraction or as a sinister, anonymous crowd whose potential for violence fills us with fear. That potential is there, but we have blown it all out of proportion. As our privacy deepens and our distance from the public increases, we pay a terrible price. We lose our sense of relatedness to those strangers with whom we must share the earth; we lose our sense of comfort and at-homeness in the world; our lives are sadly diminished. We lose the insight and energy and connectedness which life among strangers can bring.
And I would add, not only do we lose the connectedness which a public life offers us, but the people who most need those connections also lose us, and the balance and well-being they might have found among us, when we retreat into our private spaces. We can’t welcome a sinister, anonymous crowd to be with us on our spiritual journey together; we can’t welcome an empty abstraction, either. We can only welcome the living, breathing, hurting, believing, hoping people who come, one by one, to see whether they might find something noble for their lives here. If we are too busy being comfortable together to include them, they will know it, and they will go away again, a little more disappointed and despairing than when they came.
The way to prevent these shootings is only partly about the guns – just turning the death fantasies into bombings or mass poisonings or suicidal plane crashes instead doesn’t really help. And it isn’t about metal detectors and armed guards and guns in the classrooms, either. The ultimate solution is about weaving the fabric of community so densely that despair and isolation are seen, and attended to; and young people are offered tasks that matter and ways to make a difference, and hope for their future, and affirmation of their idealism, even when it is awkward and contentiously expressed. The solution is a moral education that feeds our children the true heroes, both male and female, of humanity’s long journey, rather than the icons of resentment and force, like Hitler and the KKK. Friends, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the abdication of a village to produce the deluded, self-aggrandizing despair of a mass shooter.
It is mission work to see to it that that does not happen. It is our calling in the world as a community of memory and promised, to offer welcome, and attention, and a thick network of connections that can hold even in the face of life’s first, most cruel disillusionments. By all means take away the guns; they have no place in the kinship that we are striving to build. But let us not imagine that this is the whole ultimate answer, or that anyone who is clever and willing to be patient wouldn’t be able obtain a gun if they wanted it badly enough. The challenge of wits might even lend a new spice to the whole project. If our faith and philosophies mean anything – if our humanism is authentic, if our spiritual growth is genuine – they must offer a message of solace for folks who wander to our doors in their agonizing separateness, a message which insists that, no matter what your failures, you are not alone. None of us is self-sufficient, fully realized in our power, impeccably competent. We are not our own, but part of something much larger, a tapestry of human filaments, the woven liturgies of care that we create for sharing beyond our own small inner circle. Let us be a house of welcome, and thanksgiving, where we uphold one another, living stone on living stone; a place of profound hospitality, where perhaps, finally, rage ebbs away, and the spirit finds a focus larger than the sullen ego’s fevered dreams of holding the power of death in one’s hands, and throwing away life in a shower of bullets and blood and spiteful infamy.
We don’t know – we never know – the full implications of the community we create together here. We never know what small gestures can save us, how our presence inoculates one another against despair. When you make someone truly, deeply welcome among us, you are changing the equation that plays out at some point, somewhere, in violence and shattered lives. That welcome is not an optional impulse, based on how you are feeling this morning; it is a moral obligation, a covenant promise; it is the candle we shelter together so that we may not find ourselves alone in the utter dark, without a face, with only the dripping of the water on stone, and the sound of your tears, and the taste of my own. Will you, please, rise and sing with me?
Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church
October 4, 2015
Click on the following to download the text of the sermon: The Gift of Hospitality