Last Sunday morning, when we walked into church, we knew that another tragedy had occurred. Our country has become strangely conditioned to the news of mass shootings. Somehow the horrific has become all too commonplace.
We hear the news of another town, Blacksburg, Newtown, Aurora, San Bernardino, and automatically those places become synonymous in our mind with senseless violence.
Last Sunday, as I put on my robe and stole, I knew that my hometown had joined the list.
We didn’t know how bad it was until after worship though. By the time I took that robe and stole off, there was an alert on my cell phone. It told me that 49 people had lost their lives. It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. In the sickly competitive rankings of death tolls, Orlando was now first.
I spent the day waiting for names, wondering if any friends were there. In the end, none of mine were lost. And I thanked God for that. But then I realized my good news was other’s devastation. Because it’s always someone’s hometown. It’s always someone’s friends.
After church I found your moderator, Alison, and asked if I could have her blessing to hold a candlelight vigil on the front lawn that night. We put out the word and on only a few hours’ notice people came, and spoke, and prayed. We held our candles against the darkness, and proclaimed that nothing, not even this horror, could extinguish their light.
The next day I looked at the lectionary readings for this morning, and found that this week’s came from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It contains this remarkable line: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
And it felt like somehow the lectionary knew ahead of time. Somehow it knew that this morning we would be doing two things: trying to make sense of a tragedy, and baptizing a child of God.
I carried that passage with me this week. Most of you know that early Tuesday morning I flew to Orlando with my friend and fellow trauma responder Chris. The next day we were joined by three other trauma responders from New England UCC churches. And over the next few days, we were on the ground in Orlando with two missions. First, to be helpful wherever we could. And second, to observe what was happening and to report back.
I am thankful that I went with your blessing. In a real sense, you lent your pastor out to Orlando this week. You shared me with this place. When we went to the vigil sites in our clergy collars, and talked with people who were mourning, you made that possible. When we hugged someone who had lost a friend, you the people of Exeter were there too. And when we stood at a funeral on Thursday, blocking any protestors that may come, you stood with us.
Paul is right. In Christ we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus because we are a part of one body. And last week this part of the body shared its resources with another part. That is remarkable, and that is what Paul was talking about.
But I want to raise a word of caution here. Because as much as we are indeed one in Jesus Christ, that does not mean that we are all the same. And though we respond as one body, that does not mean that this body of Christ is not diverse, or that those differences don’t matter.
The reality of what happened is this. A man, filled with hatred or self-loathing or whatever compelled him to think that he should take this course of action, chose deliberately to walk into a club where LGBTQ people were gathered. His father tells us that he had been disgusted by seeing two gay men kissing. And so he took his rage, and he went to one of the safest places that LGBTQ people in Orlando can go. And he took their safety away.
As someone who grew up gay in Orlando, that took my breath away. It brought me to my knees. These were my people.
And yet in other ways they were not. Because the other reality is this: 96% of the people who were victims were members of the Latinx community. This was Latin night, and for many who were there, this was the only place in their lives that they could be fully themselves, both Latinx and gay.
I am not Latinx, and so this week I kept reminding myself that there would be times when I would need to step back, and let others speak. Let others lead the way. Trust others, who were a part of both communities, to know how to respond. Because as much as we are all part of the same body in Christ, our differences still exist.
And they should. They are what make us Christ’s body. Because if Christ is God in human form, then of course Christ’s body should show the vastness of God and God’s people. And this week, the parts of Christ’s body that spoke Spanish and danced to the merengue while loving whomever they loved were the ones who were targeted. We can’t forget that. We can’t fail to name that.
Why? Because right now in Orlando, there are victims whose families refuse to claim their bodies because they are gay. And right now in Orlando there are survivors of the club who won’t go to the places designated for counseling because they have undocumented status and they are afraid of being turned over to immigration for deportation. That has already happened to some survivors, by the way.
It matters who they were. And it matters that we lift them up and love them for who they were.
This week I saw so many slogans. “Orlando strong.” “Orlando united.” But the one I connected with the most was this: “Somos Orlando”, or in English “we are Orlando”.
I have gone back and forth about using it. The part of me that stands in solidarity with the Latinx community in Orlando wants to say “Somos Orlando”. But the part of me that grew up in arguably the whitest, most comfortable suburb of Orlando, speaking only enough Spanish to get through my high school language requirement, wants to be careful not to appropriate what isn’t mine.
In the end, when I say “Somos Orlando” I say it only in this sense: “Somos Orlando” because I am a part of the body of Christ, and last Sunday morning a part of Christ’s body was broken again on a dance floor in Orlando. And I stand with Christ’s broken body today.
But in saying that, I can never forget, can never minimize, the fact that it was bodies that did not look like my own that were targeted. We can never forget that. And we can never allow that to be forgotten by others.
And now we also must now stand up, so this does not happen again. We have to stand up and say whatever part of Christ’s body that is going to be targeted next, in whatever town and whatever place, and for whatever reason…we are going to try to stop it.
That’s why it feels appropriate on this Father’s Day to tell you this story. 22 years ago, my father called my college dorm room from Orlando and told me my mom had told him I was gay. My dad is a Southern man, and a career government agent. And this was 1994. I didn’t know how this would go.
To my surprise, he said this to me: “That’s okay. And let me tell you something; there are going to be people who try to hold you back or target you for who you are. You can’t let them.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but he was giving me words for my Christian journey. Because if we are following Christ, we can’t let anyone hold anyone else back or target them for who they are. We have to work for a world in which we are equally valued and protected as children of God.
And so we are going to work for a world where hatred does not win. We are going to work for a world where violence is not the answer. We are going to stand up against the interests of death and destruction, and call out our love of what can kill us and kill others. We are going to be Christ’s body, a body that has again and again been broken open. We are going to change this, because Christ requires nothing less.
And like my dad taught me, we have to teach the children we know the same thing.
And so perhaps that is why it is so fitting that we are baptizing Trudy today. We are making her a part of Christ’s body. We are taking her to the waters of baptism, and she is receiving this sacrament that will forever change her. And because of that, Trudy will grow up to be someone who cannot be silent in the face of events like this. She will be someone who will stand in the broken places, and help to repair this far-too-often broken world.
Today Trudy remains herself. She is Trudy, a young child from Exeter, New Hampshire. But today she also becomes something more. She becomes one with this body that is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. And a body that is no longer gay nor straight, white nor Latino, Exeter nor Orlando either.
May she, and may we all, love this body enough to fight for every part of it. And may we love, by not erasing but by lifting up, all that makes us different, and all that makes us beautiful. And may we all work to keep this body from being broken again. Amen?