Monday, January 17, 2011

Aiming Higher

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 49:1-7; I Corinthians 1:1-9; and John 1:29-42

Did you watch President Obama’s address at the memorial for the victims in Tucson?

Without seeing what came before and after that address, without context, it was hard for me to appreciate the crowd’s energy level. It sounded more like a rally than a memorial service. And when our President arrived at that podium, his sober expression only sharpened the contrast with that wired crowd. I guess that’s what you get when 27,000 Arizonans gather in one place, and that place is a sports stadium.

As a colleague said to me last week, it’s an old saying from the world of architects, “The room always wins.”

Or maybe that electricity is what you get when those 27,000 Arizonans are upset. Angry that their city, their state, should gain this notoriety and draw such attention from around the world. Indignant that these good people—a nine-year-old charmer, a judge’s judge, two sweet old ladies, a retired construction worker and pastor, a bright young congressional intern—should lose their lives, and many more should be injured, including a fearless, dynamic member of Congress.

And irritated that the State of the Union is so troubled that this United States representative couldn’t do her job of listening to her people without an eruption of violence that simply doesn’t belong in a civil society.

Not that we have one. But we want one. And who wouldn’t agree with the imperative President Obama gave us, that we must create a civil society, and it is up to us to do it. And who would argue with his motivating us by asking that we create an America that nine-year-old Christina and Judge Roll and Gabe Zimmerman and all the other victims would be proud of?

No arguments came out of that address, nor should they have; he did a masterful job of honoring the fallen, recognizing their families’ pain, transcending the vitriol, and prescribing healing.

But there are arguments that must be had, before that civilizing can be won.

Few in Washington want to advance this argument, but we need gun control legislation at the federal level. Gun control is considered the most toxic political issue of our time. What is more truly toxic and lethal is the availability of assault weapons, the availability of automatic ammunition magazines that achieve rapid-fire unrelieved slaughter, and our unwillingness to figure out how to keep handguns out of the hands of people known to be in trouble with the law, and people known to be mentally unstable. There needs to be an argument made that these restrictions can be made at the federal level without eroding a constitutional right to bear arms, or a state’s right to regulate.

Arguments need to be had about treatment of people with mental illness. We must make treatment available and affordable and effective, and make our social treatment of people with mental illness more humane. And we must debate the role of law to mandate treatment and to monitor that mandate.

And we’ve got to discipline all our arguments so that we debate principles and have dialogue about issues, not attack or incite people who stand on the opposite side of our arguments, issues, and principles.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I speak with power and claim to understand mysteries, and if I am so confident that I say to a mountain ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but don’t have love, I’m nothing.”

Without love, we are nothing.

That scripture is not appointed for today, but it is needed for today.

And in the Gospel we have today, one detail may be full of God. John the Gospel-writer is going to great lengths to explain the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptizer. Enough attention, enough air time is given to this to suggest that the first-century Church had divisions and partisan spirit in it. Perhaps for a time, perhaps for quite some time, followers of John and disciples of Jesus did not see eye to eye, did not recognize the necessity or the opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.

Here, two disciples of John the Baptizer hear him admire and elevate Jesus. “One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother… He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “ …You are to be called Peter.”

There’s the detail I mean. Andrew and Peter, two who play big parts in the public ministry of Jesus and the apostolic foundation of the Church, they first were disciples of John the Baptizer. At least Andrew was, and it was through him that Peter entered the orbit of Jesus.

The Jesus movement builds on the John-the-Baptist movement. John’s message of repentance and ethical behavior is where Jesus’s Gospel starts but does not stop: Jesus proclaims Good News based not on what people must do, but on what God does and who God is. John tells people what they should do. Jesus inspires people to be all that God gives them to be. John brings people to accept that they are freed from their sins; Jesus invites and summons and sings his love-song to people, causing them to comprehend, to reach for and grasp, all that God frees them for.

Andrew and Peter and countless others who will be celebrated and remembered for how they lived positive, creative, generative lives in destructive dangerous times—right across the centuries to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—they show us lives built on forgiveness and responsible ethics, and the need to aim higher, the awareness that more is needed for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.

In his address, President Obama helped us see ourselves as good people. He told us of our courage as he honored Daniel Hernandez, the young intern who cradled Gabby Giffords after she was shot, running to her, not away; and Bill Badger and Roger Salzgeber and Patricia Maisch, the spunky seniors who helped disarm Jared Loughner.

The President affirmed our readiness to embrace challenge as he described this trait in young Christina and her role-model, Gabby.

He deftly wove the textures and colors of our rich tapestry of national identity, as he honored what was shown to be bright and beautiful about each of the victims of this savage attack by one disturbed young man who seems to have felt no stake in the society he would destroy.

Now more is needed: more than the courage of the few, our own courage and appetite for challenge are needed, and will be ignited as we, like Andrew and Peter and Martin, open ourselves to the call of Christ and the work of the Spirit, to see and speak and serve truth.

Like Andrew and Peter and Martin, we must aim higher.

A ten-year-old boy in Tucson said, “Gabby has opened her eyes. Now we have to open ours.”