|One of the faces of the "Faces Not Forgotten" project -|
portraits of young people killed by gun violence
in St. Louis, now on display at
Christ Church Cathedral
And so it was that I found myself having lunch with a former member of one of Chicago’s toughest gangs. And he was telling me what he tells his former gang member friends—He said, “You have to make a decision—each and every day, you have to decide.”
James Crockett, had been a member of the notorious Four Corner Hustlers gang on Chicago’s west side. On a day when the weather is 10 degrees, he and I and several other church folks are having lunch just north of Chicago in an Evanston café and he purposefully wears a t-shirt so we can see his gang tattoo. The tattoo, doo-rag, and jeans are part of his uniform to say to the other former—and soon to be former—gang members he encounters that his street cred is as real as walk with Jesus. On a good Sunday evening some 45 guys from the streets will gather with him for Bible Study and encouragement. He says, for guys transitioning off the streets, out of addiction, out of crime, each and every day presents an opportunity to decide—are they going to walk with Christ or are they going back to the path that may kill them. Faith is not an academic exercise—the stakes are high.
We had lunch that day so that we might make a decision—a decision to walk together and work together to help end violence on Chicago’s north side. James essentially said, look at me, hear my testimony and decide. He said, I need you to decide not to avert your eyes from the pain and violence in your very midst but walk with me into so we can pull some people out of it. I could barely eat my lunch. And James was asking us not just for a “one and done” experience or a donation of money. He was looking for a long-term relationship because he found that’s the only thing that seems to change things.
There are days when I can hardly believe that part of my job is helping people understand why they should care about gun violence in Chicago and the way in which it takes the lives of young people of color on nearly a daily basis. There are folks—good, well-meaning Christians, Episcopalians—who wonder why they have to keep hearing about it. What does it have to do with them? And it is a painful thing to talk about—in the way that racism, class and income inequality, and segregation are difficult to talk about. Because it reminds us that we are all impacted by the horrible and besetting sin and death that is too much a part of our lives and we don’t want to talk about it, acknowledge it, or have it interrupt the alternative narrative we are trying to build in our day to day lives—because life is already too hard.
So I get it—no one likes gun violence as dinner party chit chat. And yet, like so many other conversations that seem too overwhelming or polarizing or difficult—people of faith must find a way to talk about the violence that is all too prevalent in our lives and we must become, even if reluctantly, conversant in the vocabulary of trauma and tragedy that is part of the daily living and dying of too many of our young people.
Trying to disentangle the intersecting challenges of poverty, inadequate education, joblessness, and the feeling of daily desperation that makes for violence is hard, headache inducing work. But thankfully, we do have people working on it. We have a new generation of community organizers, leaders and agitators who won’t let us forget what is happening in the communities on the margins and who won’t let us forget about how those dynamics impact those of us with choices. What does gun violence on the west side of Chicago have to do with tony north shore suburbs like Winnetka? What does gun violence in north St. Louis have to do with the leafy streets of Clayton? Everything.
Children dying at the hands of other children or adults should break our hearts each and every time. But too often, we can’t bear to hear this news—it is just too much. We want things to be instantly different. Better. Less painful. But people are dying and we are being called to make some decisions.
Today’s gospel lesson highlights another one of those moments when the disciples find themselves on a journey that they said yes to and now are on a road they were not prepared to take—one that will demand things of them they were not prepared to give.
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
You can just imagine what Peter and the disciples are thinking—they’ve decided to make Jesus their choice—they’ve decided to leave the old life behind and follow him. What is all this business about suffering and dying? Just a moment before they were talking that yes, Jesus, was the Messiah—so what is this business about suffering—that’s not supposed to happen to the Messiah. That is not how the story is supposed to go.
And when Peter points this out and protests Jesus silences him--You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. And Jesus basically says, you gotta truly be willing to lay down that old life, pick up your cross and follow so are you still with me? He’s asking his disciples not to avert their eyes from the pain and suffering but to walk with Jesus right into it.
That was hard for the disciples to do and it is hard for us too. We, like the disciples, have our minds set not on divine things but human things—which is kind of how we got here. Here, meaning a world so filled with violence that we ache to forget it. Here, meaning a sanctuary filled with the beautiful faces of the dead. Each and every day we struggle to see the divine in our fellow human beings. We forget. Too often our mind is set, focused, tuned into seeing the human and not enough of the divine. We forget that the fingerprints of the divine are on everything and everyone. We forget that the divine spark, the light that is Christ, shines in everyone. And at our worst, we not only deny the divine imprint but we deny their humanity.
Deciding to follow Jesus means being willing to give your life over and live for someone else. For James Crockett, the former gang member who skirted death more times than he can remember, it is his 5 children, the men in his Bible Study, and his love of Christ have given him something to live for—and not just live, but to really LIVE as one who understands what the God of second, third, and fourth chances can do. James’ life now makes resurrection real to young men of the streets who were counted good as dead. His life makes resurrection real to those of us who think that poor inner city streets are only filled with death and despair.
Most of us here today will not have a story as dramatic as James Crockett. But some of us here do know what its like to wake up each day and struggle with the lure of the streets. We do know what its like to wake up each day and decide to walk in the way that is life-giving instead of death-dealing. Each day we can wake up and decide to stay sober. Each day we can wake up and decide to love our partner or spouse. Each day we wake up and decide to not be fearful of the stranger. We can decide not to clutch our bag tighter when we see a black or latino man coming our way. We can decide to see the divinity and humanity in everyone we encounter. We can decide to give our life away just a little bit for the sake of another. We can decide to take up our cross and follow the messiah whose living, dying and rising proclaims that death never has the final word. Ever.
Following Jesus will demand something of us. Following Jesus will take us down roads we may never have expected to travel. But if we decide to follow and if we decide to stay not averting our gaze from the pain and violence, we may just find resurrection. We may just find life. Amen.