Preached at a Healing Mass with Litany for Victims of Gun Violence.
The psalm appointed for this evening, Psalm 31, is a full-fledged Psalm of Lament: the plaintive, passionate voice of humanity crying out to divinity. Yet, for some reason, the creators of the Lectionary chose to include only the final five verses. As poetic as the words are, and as deeply as they may resonate with us — especially the reference to “a besieged city” — I long for the first five verses of the psalm.
So I will take the liberty of inserting into my words this evening those particular five verses, the portion that I believe is tremendously meaningful as we gather here this evening to ask for God’s healing; as our hearts cry out — whether in pain or anger; in fear, frustration, or fatigue; in helplessness or in hope.
In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
Incline your ear to me;
make haste to deliver me.
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold,
for the sake of your name lead me and guide me.
Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me,
for you are my tower of strength.
Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.
This psalm held a central place in the devotion of Jesus. With his dying breath, he famously spoke one of its phrases: “Into your hands I commend my spirit…”
This bold declaration of trust immediately follows the reference to “the net they have secretly set for me.” I suspect that everyone here knows about secret and not-so-secret nets — knows about them and has been ensnared in one or more of them, at one time or another:
- the net of homophobia, that separates us from each other and creates a barrier that denies full and equal rights and respect to so many of God’s children,
- the net of religious intolerance, that leads to division, scorn, and ultimately, genocide
- the net of gender bias, that maintains an inequitable status quo and promotes cultural, social, and economic homeostasis, and spiritual stagnation
- the net of racism, that supports the public and private, legal and illegal structures that perpetuate the enduring effects of America’s original sin
- the net of xenophobia, that denies the richness and freedom of this democratic nation to so many of those who are most in need of its possibilities and promises
I suggest that each one of us carries stories of, or even scars from, encounters with these nets. Encounters that have shaped and formed us and, for better or for worse, brought us to where we are today.
Setting aside our own stories for a moment, let us turn back to the psalmist, who also says, “You have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.” That God, the one who brings truth and redemption to us in our darkest hours, was in Orlando during Sunday’s horrific event, and is there still.
As full of horror and hatred as the massacre at Pulse was, stories of healing and hope are emerging. The reality of these stories does not lessen the dangers or discrimination or indignities that members of the gay community face — but they do reinforce that inside most human beings, there is a force for good; these stories convey the power of compassion, of love.
Eddie Justice, 30 years old, was hiding in the dance club’s bathroom. He sent a series of text messages to his mother, Mina.
“Mommy I love you.”
Then: “In club they shooting”
Then: “He’s coming”
Then: “I’m gonna die”
Eddie Justice was murdered that morning. I believe his brokenhearted mother will hang on to those text messages for a long, long time to come.
And another: Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 years old, mother of 11 children. She was dancing with her son Isaiah when she saw the attacker point his gun. She said, ‘Get down,’ to Isaiah and she got in front of him. Brenda was shot dead. Isaiah survived.
Strangers, too, were brought together.
Joshua McGill and Rodney Sumter didn’t know each other; both were among the hundreds of people in the club when the attack began. Joshua escaped the gunfire but Rodney was hit with three bullets.
Joshua jeopardized his own safety by running to Rodney; he created tourniquets for the wounds to Rodney’s arms. Then he saw the bullet hole in Rodney’s back — a very bad injury, potentially fatal. In desperation, Joshua carried Rodney to a nearby police officer.
The officer assessed the situation and instructed Joshua to get into the back of his vehicle. After Joshua was situated, the officer lay Rodney directly on top of him and instructed Joshua, “Give him a bear hug. Don’t stop, hug him like you’ve never hugged before.” All the way to the hospital.
Later, Joshua wrote:
“Words cannot and will not describe the feeling of …Trying to save a guys life that I don’t even know …The things I had to say to the guy and make promises I didn’t know I would be able to keep or not to keep him conscious while holding him as tight as I could and blood everywhere on me. Saying a prayer for him and letting him know I will be here waiting for him. …I felt God put me at the club and made me stay behind to help a complete stranger. For whatever reason that may be.. I don’t know, but I do know it was hopefully to save his life. May God be with us all in this time of need.”
* * *
Tonight’s reading from Matthews’ Gospel is a familiar one: We heard it just a few months ago — exactly 17 weeks, in fact, on Ash Wednesday, that day when we remember not only our own mortality — we are dust, and to dust we shall return — but also the precious gifts of life, and of love, that God has given us. Here it may be helpful to remember these words from Collect for that day: “Almighty God, you hate nothing you have made…”
God loves you like a weeping mother, reading and re-reading your text messages; like a playful mother who loves to dance with you. God loves you like an openhearted stranger who will give you a bear hug until you are delivered to safety. God loves the 49 people assassinated in what was a place of refuge, a sanctuary, now desecrated by hatred and violence, yet consecrated by countless prayers and the blood of martyrs. God loves the broken-hearted and will bind up their wounds, our wounds…
And when human hearts are breaking
Under sorrow’s iron rod
Then we find that self-same aching
Deep within the heart of God.