It is June in Florida and we have begun our annual vigil to see if our luck holds and again we will dodge a hurricane. Hurricanes are an expected natural disaster endemic to our State. Sadly, perhaps we also have reached a point where we wait for the next unnatural disaster; the next Nickel Mine School, Columbine, Aurora, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook/Newtown, Virginia Tech, Umpqua Community, Boston, Ft. Hood, Navy Yard Washington DC, or Orlando.
It is the context of our watching and waiting that we hear the question of today’s gospel: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” A week ago as we celebrated at this Saturday vigil Mass, we did not know that the horrific events in Orlando lay in wait to unfold. Even now it remains unimaginable. I do not think any of us here can imagine a milieu of circumstances in our lives that would lead us to contemplate such madness, to inflict such pain and devastation, or usher such evil into the world. All of us have asked, “Who is Omar Mateen? Omar was an American of Afghani descent, a father, a Muslim, a security guard, and perhaps a closeted gay man. Who do the crowds say that he is? As time passes on, more facts will become known, but we may well forget his name, but we will always remember he was a mass killer. That is the “who” that will occupy our memories. But the real question we want to ask is “why.” We will never really know the why. As the writer Simone Weil noted, sometimes we stand at the edge of the universe asking “why” but silence is the only reply we will receive in this lifetime.
“Who do the crowds say that I am?” The youngest, Akyra Murray, was 18, just graduated high school in Philadelphia and visiting family in Orlando; the oldest, Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, was 50 years of age, and a professional dancer. Edward Sotomayor was a popular travel planner. Cory Connell was a student hoping to become a firefighter. Eddie Justice was an accountant; his mother Minna was texting with him even as death took her son. While different in so many ways, they have one thing in common: They lost their lives in the deadliest mass shooting in the United States. Why them? Homophobia? A perverted understanding of Islam? Loyalty to ISIS? The universe only replies in silence.
Who will the crowds say that we are? We can speak into that silent void by our lives, our words, and our actions. We are stunned and don’t know what to do. What could be possible do? What makes sense to do? What gifts, talents, and skills do we have that can make a difference? Maybe it is just the small things?
Once a week, Terri Roberts spends time with a 16-year-old Amish girl named Rosanna King who sits in a wheelchair and eats through a tube. Roberts bathes her, sings to her, reads her stories. She wonders what goes on behind her smile. She can only guess what’s going on inside Rosanna’s mind because Rosannal is unable to talk. Roberts’ son did this to her. Ten years ago, Charles Carl Roberts IV barricaded himself inside Nickel Mine schoolhouse, tied up 10 girls and opened fire, killing five and injuring five others before committing suicide as police closed in. The Amish responded by offering immediate forgiveness to the killer — even attending his funeral — and embracing his family.
Terri’s husband, Chuck Roberts, had wiped away so many tears that he’d rubbed his skin raw. In the aftermath of the shooting, the retired police officer hung his head, inconsolable. “I will never face my Amish friends again,” he said, over and over. An Amish neighbor named Henry told him otherwise. “Roberts, we love you. We don’t hold anything against you or your son…we’re a forgiving people.”
Terri Roberts forgave, too, … saying the world needs more stories about the power of forgiveness and the importance of seeking joy through adversity. “I realized if I didn’t forgive him, I would have the same hole in my heart that he had. And a root of bitterness never brings peace to anyone,” Maybe it is there in the small things.
Who will the crowds say that we are? Will we be seen like the Amish neighbor Henry as a forgiving people? I hope so, but there is more. On Sunday, Bishop Robert Lynch could only text his sorrow to fellow bishop, John Noonan of Orlando. A few days later, after prayer and reflection, he blogged to share his thoughts on root causes. One of the causes he writes, “… sadly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people. Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence. Those women and men who were [killed] were all made in the image and likeness of God. We teach that. We should believe that. We must stand for that. …. Singling out people for victimization because of their religion, their sexual orientation, their nationality must be offensive to God’s ears. It has to stop…”
I understand Simon Weil’s insight that sometimes the universe will not answer our why’s. But it is not that the universe is silent. It asks who do we say that we are? In our Baptismal Rite there is a part in which we make a point of the traditional white garment. “…you have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity.” And today each one of is reminded of our baptismal vows by the words of the 2nd reading: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Rosanna King’s father understands that. He said the Amish are like anyone else, with the same frailties and emotions. “We hope that we have forgiven, but there actually are times that we struggle with that, and I have to ask myself, ‘Have I really forgiven?’…We have a lot of work to do to live up to what we are bragged up to be.” (Associated Press online; Dec 9, 2013). We too have a lot of work to do, we who claim to have been clothed with Christ.
We also have our own personal crosses. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Maybe the cross we all face is our silence. Not knowing what to say. Praying about our own biases. Remaining silent in the face of spoken bigotry, racism, or violence. Remaining silent by our own inaction. But we also have examples: Terri Roberts and her Amish neighbor Henry. We have challenges from our own bishop asking if we really believe all were made in the image and likeness of God.
We have this day’s gospel asking us to face the deepest question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”…and changed his life because he believed. How will we respond? What changes will we make? A silent universe waits for our response.