Service Sermon for the Victims of the Orlando Shooting

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Kintsugi

Kintsugi of The Heart

June 15, 2016
Trinity Episcopal Church, Everett WA
The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton

We have come together this evening, a composition of the diversity of American culture and identity – united by a shared grief and a common comprehension that prejudice creates an intolerable dissonance within a nation founded on principles of freedom, equality and justice for all.

There have been many early responses over the past few days since the lives of 49 people were taken and 53 more people were left injured and bleeding in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando early in the morning on Sunday, June 12th. Some responses have been predictable, because – unfortunately – by now in our national life, they are all too familiar.  In some ways, as The Late Show host, Stephen Colbert, observed, “It’s as if there’s a national script that we have learned. And I think by accepting the script we tacitly accept that the script will end the same way every time. With nothing changing.”

Indeed, nothing can change when people are drawn into a cycle of violence that leads to fear and scapegoating that leads to more violence, fear and scapegoating.  Hate is like using a hammer to fix cracks in a precious ceramic bowl. Violence only further breaks what we would repair.  The only force that can bring healing, to a world, a nation, a community, a family, a person, or even a bowl is a mind motivated by love.

Kintsugi is a Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery with gold.  Translated as “to repair with gold” or other precious metals, the philosophy behind Kintsugi approaches breakage and repair as part of the valued history of an object, rather than something to disguise. It embraces what is flawed or imperfect, cherishing marks of wear made by use. Using gold resin to rejoin the broken pieces has the effect of highlighting or illuminating the repaired cracks as an historic event in the life of an object.  The bowl is not simply thrown away.  Rather, Kintsugi resurrects or empowers the bowl to continue its usefulness, with even greater beauty added to its vulnerability.  The ability of the bowl to be of service to the needs of others does not end at the time of its damage or breakage.

Like Kintsugi, our conversations and interactions – both in our personal lives and in our national life – moving forward from the tragedy in Orlando must realistically highlight our social fractures, while also being compassionately committed to repairing what is broken. We must not hide or minimize our wounds but work to fuse one community to another with the gold that abides within each of us – our ability to love.

As Lin-Manuel Miranda summarized in an original sonnet he shared with our nation at the annual Tony Awards on Sunday night:

“We rise and fall and light from dying embers,
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love
cannot be killed or swept aside.”

I believe that this is the summary of Christian faith for our day. The fact that this Gospel comes from an inspired American (born in the northern Manhattan) and of Puerto Rican heritage causes me to hear the echo of the voices of those who died in Orlando within the violated sanctuary of Pulse Nightclub.  They were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, somebody’s children, friends, committed partners, lovers, dreamers, and artists. At least three same-gender couples died together, and one of these couples will be buried together in death (Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22, and his 32-year-old boyfriend, Christopher “Drew” Leinonen), because they were not able to be married in life.

Within the divine work of loving one another, it must be stated clearly here in this sanctuary space that peoples of all faith traditions – most particularly the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – must challenge those within our respective religions who attempt to justify the alienation, discrimination and persecution of LGBTQ peoples or any minority in the name of God.  We must refine our hearts into the gold that we need to be, in order to be repairers of the breach that we helped to create within the history of human civilization.

As many have said, prayer alone is not sufficient for the work we must do together. Jessy Briton Hamilton, a school teacher and advocate within LGBTQ community, is also a member of The Episcopal Church.  He writes, “I believe very strongly in prayer, but the point of prayer is not to persuade God to grant our wishes, but to move us to action. Prayer’s power is in its ability to move us to change; to transform us. If you’re waiting for God to stop gun violence, terrorism, or homophobia, then you’ll be waiting awhile. You’ll be waiting until you wake up to realize that you are the only hands and feet and voices God has in this world. So keep praying, but don’t expect anything to change until we all come together to DO SOMETHING.”

The American Muslim community has reacted with an outpouring of love and support in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The support came in the form of fundraisers, blood donations, and public statements that firmly condemned the violence. Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of CAIR-Florida [Center for American-Islamic Relations], called for unity in a Facebook video, saying that it was important not to allow politicians to use this attack to “promote fear, division and hate” within America. “America is one of the best places in the world to be a practicing Muslim,” said Shibly, “To be Jewish, to be Christian, to be atheist, to be whoever you want to be, it offers us more freedom to practice our religion than almost anywhere else.”

Joshua Friedes, Director of Rabbinic and Synagogue Engagement at J Street in Seattle shares, “I am, like so many, profoundly depressed by the violence in Orlando. Forty-nine predominately young LGBT Latinos were robbed of living in a changed America, a country where the overwhelming majority now embrace gays as part of the fabric of our imperfect but nonetheless great nation….  As a middle aged White Gay Jewish man who has lived most my life in a virulently homophobic society… I am realizing the America into which I have become equal is not the America I want, even while it is the nation I love. America is a great nation. We must understand that our diversity is our superpower.”

Indeed, in the wake of the shooting in Orlando, many people – from many communities, ethnicities, faiths, and orientations of love, from both sides of the political aisle and across the economic spectrum are taking collective action.  President Obama, who has been confronted with addressing our nation no less than on 18 occasions of mass shootings prior to Orlando, shared the reminder that, “Regardless of race, religion, faith or sexual orientation, we’re all Americans, and we need to be looking after each other and protecting each other at all times in the face of this kind of terrible act.”

The largest medical organization in the United States, the American Medical Association, passed a historic resolution this week in response to the weekend’s mass shooting. After years of tiptoeing around the topic of gun control, AMA leaders voted to officially call gun violence a public health issue — and respond accordingly. That means flexing the organization’s powerful political muscle on Capitol Hill to refocus federal funds toward studying gun violence.  To see this through, however, Congress would need to lift a 20-year-old ban that blocks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding any research related to gun violence. However, the AMA, with one of the largest political lobbying budgets of any organization in the U.S., appears ready to fight for all of us.

The solutions to the complex set of interrelated issues that contribute to mass shootings in America will not be easy to achieve. The challenges involve several issues – such as mental health care funding and provision, immigration policies, gun legislation and regulation, discriminatory laws that reinforce old social patterns of prejudice and privilege, racist attitudes and beliefs towards immigrant populations and LGBTQ peoples, and fear-based assertions about the Muslim faith – just to name a few.

Yet, there is much being spoken, shared and enacted in response to the Orlando shooting (as added to a history of loss in our nation) – upon which we can base a reasonable (and holy) hope.

The Republican Lt. Governor of Utah, Spencer Cox, addressed the vigil held in Orlando on Monday night (on June 13th) to honor the victims and survivors of the shooting.  He confessed that his thoughts and beliefs about LGBTQ people had changed and that he had needed that change.  However, he also acknowledge the challenge remaining of changing the hearts and minds of many more who continue to think and legislate from the type of discriminatory beliefs that he once held.

“But just because an easy solution doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” he said to the diverse crowd gathered at the vigil, “The greatest generations in the history of the world were never innately great. They became great because of how they responded in the face of evil. Their humanity is measured by their response to hate and terror.  I truly believe that this is the defining issue of our generation. Can we be brave? Can we be strong?… What our country needs more than ever is less politics and more kindness. If nothing else, as we can see here tonight, this tragedy has the potential to bring us closer than ever before.”

Finally, over the last three days, more than 20 Hispanic organizations have formed a coalition called “Somos Orlando,” which is offering assistance to the victims’ families. While the United States offers a bit more stability, Puerto Ricans and Latinos in central Florida still face a number of challenges—ones that make it complicated for shooting victims and their families to access resources. For example, many families have not come forward because they are afraid, based on past experiences of their community involving immigration policies and practices.

Even though many groups have come out to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community after the shootings, this kind of tragedy is particularly difficult because of the lack of acceptance for LGBTQ people among some Latinos.  The loss of so many of their promising young people has caused a level of conversation within their communities that will challenge their traditional cultural understandings of gender and identity. However, they are certainly not alone in addressing such challenges.  A diverse spectrum of hearts and minds must engage a journey of socio-cultural and personal transformation.  Our commitment to be in relationship with one another is vital for our mutual success.

In many, many ways, then, the deaths of 49 beautiful men and women, who were simply being true to who they were, will continue to inspire the positive actions of thousands – bringing together the many pieces representing diverse communities and governance structures that have been living in a condition of isolated fear.  The love that these 49 people felt and shared and incarnated through who they were is the gold that is even now illuminating where we need to come together – uniting us across many differences so that we can be both imperfect and more beautiful, stronger than before and broken no more.

The Grand Journey

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People take lots of kinds of journeys throughout life, to places geographical, emotional, spiritual, internal, difficult, joyful, perplexing, mysterious or unknown – as ever journeys can be.  There are journeys we are on as individuals and journeys we are on as societies. The impact of a journey can be as powerfully and immediately transformational as a meteor strike, or it can be as soft and beckoned as the gradual morning dawn.

Dirt Road to the Haulapai Nation, Grand Canyon West, AZ

A series of steps and encounters during my life has brought me to an unexpected place of feeling a powerful need to advocate for a people that have been so much a part of my life that, in the naiveté of my own acceptance of them, I did not fully realize were/are fighting and dying for their basic human rights and dignity on a level of global cultural genocide.  They have never, not a one, ever asked or sought my help, you see.  They are a proud people.  I have been living beside them and with them for years as a steadfast confidant, friend or pastoral care giver.

While I could see and respond to their individual suffering as they gifted me with the sharing of it throughout my life, it took me standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon last week for me to finally see the broad global pattern of socially institutionalized persecution that has held them in thrall for millennia.  Their degradation, humiliation and even annihilation is so deeply imbedded in three of the world’s largest faith traditions – which maintain encoded prejudices from sources held in common – that I now perceive an abyss representing both historic time and cultural divide that cause me both inarticulate amazement and abject horror.  I truly did not “get it” until now.

Walk with me.

Grand Canyon Ground Squirrel

When I was little, my mother told me stories about her early life as a vocalist with the Pennsylvania Light Opera and flutist with Pittsburgh Philharmonic.  At some point in her career she had the opportunity to work with conductor Leonard Bernstein, unarguably one of the most talented composers and musicians in America.  He enjoyed her company, and they attended parties and gatherings together that my mother recalled with great fondness.  My mother obviously liked and admired him very much.

My six year old self once asked her, “Why didn’t you marry him?”

“He never asked me,” said my mother.

“Why not?”  I demanded (thinking my mother unparalleled).

“Well, dear, he was gay,” she answered as she gently cupped my chin with her hand, tilting my gaze upward to meet hers. “He eventually did marry a woman, but he preferred to be with men. I knew that was the case and decided that I would make a better friend to him than a wife. But, oh! He was handsome!”

“Are lots of men gay?” I asked, somewhat uncertain of the new word that had been introduced to me, since until then I thought it just meant “happy.”

“Some men are, and some women, too.  But you mustn’t mind it; it doesn’t make the quality of a person any less or more.  But it is an important thing to know beforehand, if you think you might like a certain boy,” responded my mother with her usual common sense.

From that moment onward, I never minded “gay” as an aspect of anyone I would meet going forward in life.  On some level I felt that if my mother loved an extraordinary man like Leonard Bernstein, gay was a human quality that was ultimately very lovable and was just one of the many ways of being that humans can come in.

Grand Canyon Raven

Though I would learn that some of my friends in high school were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, I was utterly unaware of it at the time.  Like most people who live from a privileged status within a culture (in this case, heterosexual), it rarely occurred to me that heterosexuality could be a challenge for anyone else outside of the approved social “norm” – that measure  having been established by those claiming to represent the normative by which everyone else is judged substandard or defective.

In high school “gay” was something the jocks (male and female) flung around like dirty socks at anyone who didn’t live and die by the calendar of sporting events.  Since I was in choir, theater and the debating club, you can imagine that I had a few such socks thrown in my direction.  I didn’t mind it or respond to it in any way, because it wasn’t my issue; it was clearly theirs.  I also thought they were very stupid, and I had been raised to be nice to the imbecilic.

Watchtower, Hopi Artist Fred Kabotie, Grand Canyon

It wasn’t until college that I came to know young men and women who were actively struggling with a “coming out” process.  Most didn’t fully emerge during those four years but came to grips with their true personhood after college.  One exception was my dear friend Joe (who I nick named Jody), who finally came out to me after breaking up with an overly-dramatic girlfriend that most of us thought was a lunatic anyway.  I’ll never forget the night in a local pub when – over a pitcher of light beer and a bag of peanut M&Ms – we realized that we had both spent heaps of emotional energy agonizing over the same guy.  We both dropped our crush in that instant, and I attribute our strong bond to that hoot-and-howl of a sister recognition moment.

Jody could never tell his parents that he was gay, and he took that secret to his grave.  He was their only son and their only hope for continuing the family name in a presumed marriage that would and could never be.  Not long after college, Jody was in a car accident.  He survived his injuries but not the pneumonia he developed during his hospital stay.  I phoned his parents after I read the news of his death posted in the college alumni newsletter.  While speaking with Jody’s mother, I could hear the subtext accusation in her voice, “He cared for you so much!”  Apparently, either I or another close girl friend of his was supposed to have made their wedding and family dreams come true.  None of us could have done it, and I didn’t correct their impression.  I just held his mother’s grief in the cradle of my ear, even as I mourned for the Joe (Jody) I had known and loved as my friend.

Grand Canyon, South Rim

When I became a professional healthcare chaplain in the early ‘90s, issues of who could be a healthcare representative were in the forefront of emergency room conversations.  Within heterosexual relationships, family members and fiancés were considered the unquestioned primary candidates to make decisions on behalf of a patient who could not speak for him or herself.

When it came to homosexual relationships, however, even family members who had historically disowned a homosexual child or sibling were suddenly empowered by the medical institution and law to enter the ICU or ER and make life and death decisions about someone they hadn’t even spoken to in twenty years.  Meanwhile, the person the patient had shared a home and a life with in all that time was not permitted access to the patient without the family’s consent.  The life partner was certainly not permitted to make healthcare decisions, even if they were allowed in the patient’s room.

Healthcare representation has mellowed in the law, depending on which state of the union one lives in.  My early work as a hospice chaplain was in Indiana.  If the appropriate forms were completed while the patient was alive, awake and coherent, the patient could appoint the health care representative of their choosing; a representative didn’t have to be blood family.  Without that paperwork, family was legally recognized as the rightful decision makers.  In addition, funerary law states that the family “owns” the body post mortem unless legal documents have been prepared that state other wishes.

Grand Canyon, Desert View Drive

Toni was one of the hospice patients in the inpatient facility where I worked.  He had been with his partner, Stephen, for nearly 30 years.  For Stephen’s two children (by then young adults) Toni was the only mother they had known.  They shared stories with me about Toni’s care in preparing their lunches for school when they were kids and how Toni took their daughter to prom when she had no date because of the stigma of her same-gendered parents.  At the prom he wowed everyone with his dancing – wowing them again when he fixed a student’s car in the parking lot that night so the student and his date could drive home safely and not get in trouble for being late.

As Toni’s legal healthcare representative and partner for life, Stephen cared for Toni throughout his struggle with non Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  With tireless devotion and love, Stephen helped Toni bathe, eat, prepare for bed, groom his hair and wipe the tears from his face when Toni could no longer speak in any other way.

One evening before leaving work for the day, I stepped into Toni’s room on an impulse to say goodbye (I came to listen to those intuitions while working in hospice).  Stephen was at the bedside, holding Toni’s hand in the quiet twilight of the room as Toni’s breathing gradually became labored and irregular in his dying.

“I’m glad you came by,” Stephen said in a hushed voice reminiscent of a chapel whisper, “I have something for you from Toni and me.  It’s not much, but we thought you could understand it.” Stephen then poured a silver ball-chain with a series of rainbow colored aluminum rings on it into my open palm.

Stephen explained, “They’re called Freedom Rings.  The rainbow colors of the rings represent us and the hope that freedom will someday ring in our country for all people.  You’ve helped make this a safe place for us to be who we are and allowed us to love one another in these last days as any two people committed to one another do. Toni and I want to thank you for being our chaplain.  No minister or church has ever welcomed us and our family, but you did.  Thank you.”

Rain in the East Canyon, Grand Canyon

I still have the Freedom Rings necklace they gifted to me.  When Gene Robinson was consecrated the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, I wore it to the special clergy day that was called for the clergy of the Diocese of Olympia, an opportunity for us to voice our concerns or opinions.  I received several puzzled looks as I sat adorned with rainbow rings and holding Nigel’s (my husband’s) hand.  I wish I could say that I spoke up that day and shared Stephen and Toni’s story, but I did not.  The remarks of conservative clergy were harsh and strident; somehow the tenderness of a beloved man dying beside the man and family who loved him seemed too sacrosanct for the churning vitriol in the air.  It felt like I was trying to gently launch gossamer seeds into a hurricane wind, and I lost my voice before I could utter a syllable of peace.

I met my dear friend and colleague, Sean, while working at hospice, and I have been promising him for many years that we would one day go to the Grand Canyon.  It’s a gift to me that finally – at the age of 60 – he feels safe enough with someone to be utterly free to be himself, in a place both far away enough and grand enough to accept him.  People easily mistook us for a heterosexual couple.  And yet, seeing what is truly there is far more challenging and compelling.

See with me.

Desert View Drive, Watchtower View

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, the distance between the past and the future is deeply chiseled as a journey through time – from the base rock of our cultural and theological past to the uncomfortable expanse of the rim above, we are all challenged to read the record of how things have been. Then, like the Colorado River (which has never changed its width), we must patiently but inevitably carve the way forward. We must commit to creating a different legacy, in a country founded on freedoms that has yet to find freedom for all.

At last, at the end, after all; I see something even larger than the millennial abyss of frightening despair, prejudice and hatred.

I see in the canyon a parable carved in stone about the vast heart of God.  Sean stands on the edge, and there I stand with him, my hand in his, and I will not let go.  We dare to stand side-by-side on the edge of hope, held to this sacred place by gravity and divine love. Each life on this earth, having been created by the God who called it good, deserves nurture and protection in order to live into the fullest promise of what God has made – the life abiding in the canyon, and the life abiding in each of us.

God promises love.  God asks only that we love one another as Christ loved us.

Stand here. See all that God has made…and…

Love with me.

Grand Canyon Sunset, Lipan Point