UM pastors rewrite sermons after Newtown massacre

A memorial of candles, flowers, stuffed animals and cards for the 20 children and six adults who died at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14 rests beneath a Christmas tree in Newtown. A UMNS photo by the Rev. Arthur McClanahan.

At a clergy colleague’s wedding on Saturday night, Dec. 15, the Rev. Matthew Sipe sat at a table of eight United Methodist pastors. All had the same question on their minds: What would they preach the next morning, in light of the tragic events on Friday morning in Newtown, Conn.?

“We were all sitting there talking about … ‘Are you going to preach about it?’” he said. “We all knew that preaching about gun control would be somewhat controversial for some people. The question was, ‘How can we say something that people will actually hear in the face of this?’”

Mr. Sipe scrapped the sermon he’d planned and went in early on Sunday to his church, Delano United Methodist in Delano, Minn., to rewrite. One of the first parishioners to arrive was already weeping, still shaken by Friday’s news. That strengthened his resolve.

Mr. Sipe then delivered “the hardest sermon I’ve ever given,” and urged church members—for the first time in his career as a pastor—to support some form of gun control.

While he didn’t advocate specific policies, he said: “We all know that we don’t want this to happen, and we don’t want crazy people getting guns.”

Mr. Sipe, who has two children, ages 5 and 3, said the horrific news was a turning point in his mind, especially as it occurred just after several gun-related deaths in Minnesota, including two accidental shootings.  “Those situations would have ended differently if people didn’t have guns,” he said.

 “I want it to stop now,” he said. “It’s not the world I want for myself or for my kids, and it’s not the world I believe God is calling us to live in.”

Newtown UMC victims

Many United Methodist pastors, like Mr. Sipe, scrambled over the weekend to rewrite their Advent sermons, in the hours following the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, which left 20 children and six teachers and administrators dead.

The shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed his mother in her home, then killed himself at the school. Two of the children killed in the attack, Chase Kowalski, 7, and Jesse Lewis, 6, attended Newtown United Methodist along with their parents.

At Sunday worship at First United Methodist in Seattle, many in the pews wept as the Rev. Sanford “Sandy” Brown lit a candle and rang a bell for each of the first-graders who died in the shooting.

For Mr. Brown, a longtime advocate of gun control, the horrific news was a spur to speak even more strongly. After grieving over the news over the weekend, Mr. Brown said he woke up on Sunday “ready to take the next step, and that was to move toward action. . . . Not just to pray and wring our hands, but also to take steps to help our society to be transformed.”

“Gun violence is America’s demon, and our demon had its way with us again on Friday,” said Mr. Brown said in his sermon. He cited examples of gun control programs in Australia and Canada as successful examples of policies that reduced gun-related violence.

“It is a lie, a demonic and evil lie, to say that we cannot reduce gun violence in the U.S.,” he said. “The truth is, we cannot afford not to act. Our children are too precious.”

The Rev. Gary Waters, pastor of St. Thomas United Methodist in Glen Ellyn, Ill., also set aside the sermon he’d prepared for Dec. 16, and instead preached from the heart.

While he’s not opposed to gun control, Mr. Waters tried to balance his sermon by saying it is just one piece of the solution. He noted in his sermon that Switzerland and Finland have high rates of gun ownership but relatively low rates of violent crime.

“It’s more than just guns,” he said. “There’s something sick in our culture—the prevalence of violent imagery, the revenge stories we tell over and over again. Our culture is just off the rails in terms of violence.”

The solution might include more stringent gun control laws, he said, “but it has to be bigger than that.”

At Ropesville United Methodist near Lubbock, Texas, church members sat in silence as the church’s bells tolled in memory of the victims of the shooting. But the Rev. Bill Titus felt it was too soon to weigh arguments about gun control. Until the facts were known, he said, it would’ve been “disrespectful to jump on a political agenda.”

But Mr. Titus, who is also a board member of the Texas Concealed Handgun Association, did note that Connecticut’s laws relating to gun ownership are among the most stringent in the U.S. In earlier shootings at Virginia Tech and in Aurora, Colo., he added, “The shooters had previous histories of mental illness, and yet nothing was done to stop them.”

“I think it’s common sense that people have to learn to defend themselves and learn to react in critical situations,” he said. “But I’m one of the folks swimming upstream on this.”

The Rev. Chuck Ferrara, a former New York Police Department lieutenant who served New Life United Methodist in New Fairfield, Conn., until his recent retirement, knows law enforcement officials in the Newtown area, and made some phone calls to offer his services as a chaplain to any first responders who might need a listening ear.

Mr. Ferrara, a former Green Beret, said he’s been around guns most of his life.

“I don’t really see the rationale of why anyone should have an assault rifle that’s equal to that of what our troops are carrying in Afghanistan,” he said. The gun that Adam Lanza wielded in Connecticut, he noted, could fire 60 rounds in seconds.

“I don’t think guns should be taken away from background-checked, licensed, upstanding citizens…. but assault weapons are insane,” he said.

Gun control, he says, is only part of the solution. He believes that obsessive media coverage of shooting sprees, combined with the prevalence of violent movies, TV and videogames and the availability of guns, all contributed to the current rash of shootings. Churches can step up and address all of those issues, he said.

“The clergy have a tremendous voice in all the communities I’ve served,” he said. “They can play a major role in this area.”

Official stance

Officially, the United Methodist Book of Resolutions supports gun control. Resolution 3426 advocates banning handguns and assault weapons and regulating gun ownership with registration, background checks and waiting periods.

Banning all handguns “is something that politically, right now, is not doable,” according to Bill Mefford, director of Civil & Human Rights at the General Board of Church and Society, but he thinks the moment for some kind of change may be at hand.

In an email blast on Dec. 17, Mr. Mefford advocated requiring universal background checks for anyone purchasing a gun (including those purchased at gun shows) and reinstating a more vigorous ban on assault weapons. He shared a letter that his congregation, Culmore UMC in Falls Church, Va., had written calling on President Obama to “take leadership in bringing an end to such senseless killing,” and urged other church members to sign and send the letter to President Obama.

“My congregation, like many of yours, is not of one mind when it comes to access to guns,” he wrote in the email. “Yet, after this tragedy, we know that regardless of where we stand on access to guns, all of us know there are simple things that Congress can do to prevent gun violence and more senseless tragedies.”

Mr. Mefford acknowledged that while gun control is a topic that spurs a “fair share” of pushback for GBCS from people in the pews, he’d received uniformly positive responses to the email blast from individuals and churches.

“With the simple things we’re calling for now . . . there’s a majority of NRA members that support those kinds of efforts,” he said.

After he preached about Newtown, and broached the subject of gun control, Mr. Sipe said, some people in his congregation were unhappy, but Mr. Sipe says that’s OK. 

“I’m just going to keep trying to have the conversation,” he said.


Mary Jacobs

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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