A week ago Thursday, Douglas Jones, a homeless man, entered the offices at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, a suburb of Baltimore. St. Peter’s has a food pantry where clients may come once a week to receive groceries. Jones, however, had been by every day for two weeks. For that reason, and because of his erratic behavior, he had been asked to stay away from the church. But some time on May 3rd he returned and he had a handgun. He shot and killed the parish administrator, Brenda Brewington, and fatally wounded one of the church’s two priests, the Rev. Dr. Mary Marguerite Kohn. Jones then went out into the woods behind the church and used the gun to take his own life. It is a tragedy of unimaginable proportion that has shocked the congregation, the community, the Diocese of Maryland, and many in the Episcopal Church.
The next day was the scheduled beginning of the annual council of that diocese. In that as investigators were still trying to piece together what had happened and news was spreading that Rev. Kohn was on life-support for purposes of organ donation, you can imagine how this awful event cast a pall over the normal business and debates of that gathering.
Councils typically feature resolutions; some are no-brainers, others inconsequential, a few very controversial. I have attended more than one council where a resolution was rushed to the floor to speak to a late-breaking current event. We were at council in the Diocese of Virginia the morning the Discovery shuttle broke apart over the skies of Texas. One of the astronauts came from the diocese and his parents were parishioners in a northern Virginia congregation. Before the day was out, someone had crafted a resolution expressing the council’s deep sorrow and sympathy, while at the same time giving thanks for their courageous lives offered in service to humanity.
If I were in the Diocese of Maryland, I am not sure what I would say twenty-four hours after the death of colleagues engaged in a ministry of the church. Praise God that the Holy Spirit moves most when and where it is needed. Someone, I don’t know who, put together a resolution that helps me to remember why I proud to be an Episcopalian. Titled “Expression of Support, Condolence and Hope in the midst of Tragedy”, it expressed “profound grief and shock regarding the violent event that took place at St. Peter’s”, expressed the council’s “deepest condolences to the families and friends” of the victims, and pledged “to support them in their grief.”
The next resolved reads as follows:
“That this Convention, prays for the repose of the souls of Brenda and Mary Marguerite; and, in the pattern of the Christian Faith, extends our forgiveness and prays for the repose of the soul of Douglas Jones, so that in our hearts grace may overcome bitterness, and love may conquer fear.”
It goes on to commit support to the clergy, staff, and people of St. Peter’s Church and “strongly encourages all parishes to make appropriate provisions for the safety of their clergy, administrators, and other staff members.”
The final three resolves read as follows:
“That the Convention pledges to recognize and address the needs of homeless persons in our communities, as well as the needs of our brothers and sisters who suffer from mental illness.”
“That the Convention pledges to challenge and condemn the violence which infects our society and relationships, and to seek peaceful means to address conflict and strife.”
“That this Convention expresses our deep concern for all victims of gun-related crimes.”
As you can tell, the resolution is a breath-taking witness to the complexity of Christian faith and love.
We learn something incredibly important in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. We learn that there is a force permeating all reality to which we are both invited and commanded to be aligned. It is the force of God’s love; not a sappy sentimental love, but rather a love manifested in Jesus through dying to self and living for God and others. The commandment to live this way is not burdensome, rather it leads to our deepest joy because it marries us to the most fundamental and unfailing aspect of reality – God’s gracious, generous love.
Connecting with this love is not something we try to do, but quit on when it gets too difficult. It is not something we try on but discard when it is challenged by hatred, rejection, or violence. When Jesus said, “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” he was saying that our drive and desire to be aligned with the expression of God’s love will be tried and will be tested again and again and again.
When this happens, some will say to God, “Well, we took out your commandments for a test drive, but a homeless man shot our priest and our beloved administrator so we are going to fold up our tents.” But others will say, “Nothing will stop our witness because senselessness, hatred, evil, and death are not the strongest forces in the world, they are not the fundamental reality at work in the universe, God’s love is and, in the words of I John, ‘whatever is born of God conquers the world.’”
In her Easter Sunday sermon, Rev. Kohn described the state of the disciples following the crucifixion with these words:
“They are burying a beloved friend and leader; they are burying a dream. Can you relate to that desolation and despair? If we are to walk with them, we might let ourselves bring up a time in our own life of deepest grief, despair, and darkness. A time when hope for the future has died. The sun is rising but they and we are in darkness.”
She went on to describe how encountering the Risen Lord brought about a seismic shift in the lives of Jesus’ followers. She lifted up the possibility that each one of us might experience an “astonishing transformation… as… the power of the resurrected Christ breaks into [our] lives, reorienting everything [we] think [we] know and believe, changing [our] life trajectory…. For Christ has been raised; and he calls all of his beloved to follow him on the roads of discipleship.” This is the reality in which we choose to abide through faith, come what may.
While we mourn this day for those events last week in Maryland, we also celebrate another witness to selfless love – our mothers. With a few rare exceptions, these are people who have embodied the selflessness of the Gospel and the self-emptying model of our Lord. In that they have done so faithfully they are shining examples of what it means to abide in God’s love and to have God’s love abide in them.
The words of our Lord, the testimony of his follower John, and the witness of many call us to align our lives with that which is most central, most basic, and most deserving – God’s love. We are called to this reality not because it will always be easy – there are times it will be very difficult – and not because it will never be challenged – it will be tested often – but because it is fundamental to who God is and how God made this world to be.