The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, has been among the most visible and eloquent leaders in the Episcopal Church on the subject of gun violence. Yesterday, capping the Cathedral’s participation in the Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath, he preached this sermon, an excerpt from which is below.
Here at Washington National Cathedral we have spent the last several days observing a Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend. We are doing this in collaboration with our partner organization, Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence and with more than 200 faith communities across America. Since Thursday night, we have gathered to pray, reflect, listen, learn, and commit ourselves to action that will help bring this epidemic to an end.
Taken together, today’s Gospel and the story of Adam Scott sketch the outlines of gun violence as a religious problem. Like all violence, gun violence will plague us as long as the wills and affections of sinners continue to be unruly. Mary and Martha and Judas turn a dinner with Jesus into a family argument. A young man goes to a party and ends up dead. These things don’t happen only because of human ill-will. They happen because none of us is, finally, in control of ourselves. Our wills and affections are unruly. We neither love what God commands nor desire what God promises. That is the human condition: we may think we’re in charge, but when we’re honest with ourselves we know that much of the time we’re out of control both personally and socially. In the Christian tradition, we call that condition “sin,” and we give over the season of Lent to lamenting it, examining it, and working together to find new ways to live with it even as we move, with Jesus, into God’s future.
Gun violence will continue to be a religious problem as long as people like you and me are sinners. When we say that we’re sinners, we do not say that in a negative or judgmental way. We say it in recognition of the way things are. I don’t always know what’s best for myself. I want what I want, often regardless of the consequences. My judgment is limited and finite and partial. Real spiritual and psychological health begins with an acknowledgement of my situation. “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). That’s what the Bible means when it calls us sinners: not that we’re bad, merely that we’re cosmically accident-prone. God doesn’t love us in spite of our sinfulness. God loves us in full knowledge of who we are and of what we are capable.
When Martha and Judas complain about Mary’s contemplative attention to Jesus, they are not being evil, merely mistaken. We need to work together to lessen the occurrence of gun deaths not because people are evil but because we’re neither as smart nor invulnerable as we like to think ourselves. We need each other to make our way through life. That’s what society, that’s what the church, is all about. And that’s why we at Washington National Cathedral are in this gun violence work for the long haul. We won’t give up until our streets and our schools and our children are safe. We owe at least that much to our children, our neighbors, ourselves.