I just read an article on the Toronto Star’s webpage about the events at First Baptist Church in Maryville Illinois. While we prayed this morning and while I spoke of Jesus pronouncing a new order and a way of non-violence the people in that church were subject to watching their Pastor get shot to death. The Star writes that the pastor who was killed during his Sunday sermon ‘deflected the first of the gunman’s four rounds with a Bible, spraying a confetti of paper into the air during a horrifying scene.’
Here are the words I read from the gospel this morning;
"If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it." Matthew 16:24-25.
I am really mortified at what that scene must have been like this morning. I cannot envision standing in my place of worship, speaking those words (or others of Jesus for that matter as his was the way of non-violence) and being shot. What is more I cannot imagine how very terrifying it had to be for those who are parishioners in that church. The image had to be hideous and horrifying: The person they looked to for spiritual direction in the line of fire, defending himself with ‘the word.’
Life sometimes provides our Lenten journey with terribly cruel reminders of the journey Jesus took to Calvary. Somehow, some way the people of that congregation have to now find a way to take the call of the Gospel seriously. The man who shot this pastor stabbed himself but his wound was not fatal. This will leave this mid-west church a in an acute place of living the Gospel. It will not be easy. "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly." Luke. 6.27-28. Could we do it? If that incident were closer to home could we find a way to seek justice that is not just borne of vengeance? It is a really difficult question that is not easily answered. I know what we are called too and I know what those people in that church all called to.
The great Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero was also killed in his church, in San Salvador. He spoke so fervently for justice and refused to be intimidated by violence. He look very seriously the words of Jesus quoted above; ‘those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ A couple of weeks before he was brutally murdered he said, "If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people … A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish." His last words as were; "May God have mercy on the assassins." He stared into the face of violence and pronounced the way of Jesus – the way of Non-violence.
I am saddened by this act of terrible violence. I pray now that I might, we might, and the people of First Baptist in Mayville might now look to faith and look to the Gospel of love and non-violence to respond as we should. God is a loving God. I pray that The Rev’d Fred Winters family and his church family will know that love.