And All the Birds of the Air


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

February 18, 2018


Texts: Jeremiah 4:19-31; Psalm 7

      Here we are. Another school shooting has occurred, in fact the eighth school shooting of the year – that’s more than one a week – that has resulted in either death or injury. The other ten don’t count: no one dead. We see the familiar images of mothers crying as they hold their surviving children close to them. And we see the grief that has no words as parents learn their child is among the dead.

       Almost as many dead as in Sandy Hook five years ago, but no matter, what counts is that any disturbed persons should be able to secure their so-called Second Amendment rights by having an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle developed in the 1950s by a former Marine. The advantage of this weapon is that it is relatively light and easy to handle – and can inflict monumental damage to its target. Got to have our guns.

       Now, with David, we can cry: O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands …” And, yes, we have done that wrong with our hands by not calling our members of Congress to account for their cowardly refusal to block such weapons as these. And some members of Congress actually have the gall to say that if someone had actually had a gun in the Sutherland Baptist Church or in the school this week the number killed would have been less!

       “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void” cried Jeremiah,” there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.” Indeed they had. And he continues: “The fruitful land had become a desert.” And isn’t that exactly what has happened now? And David cries out: “Rise up, O Lord, in your anger!” But nothing compares to the anger of NRA funding against members of Congress who defy its overwhelming defense of the right of anyone, including the insane and persons convicted of crimes of domestic violence to have a gun – any gun.

        One would have thought that 20 little white children and their 6 teachers in suburban Connecticut would have gotten some Congressional response. Of course, no one cared about the victims at the Pulse – they were all queer, anyway. And rock concert goers? At least the bump stock that shifts semi-automatic weapons to automatic ones got some response in a few states, New Jersey included.                    Congress, of course, acted with its usual cowardice with its so-called leadership making a few namby-pamby statements about how we all need better mental health services. Perhaps Congress should start at home.

         By the way, anyone here can still go online and for only $539 can get an AR-15 – no questions asked. David’s generation had nothing to compare to our weapons of mass destruction. I mean, what are slingshots and a few spears to compare to the havoc that can be caused by an assault rifle? And the gutless wonder called the Congress still sits quaking in fear of the NRA.

         And then we have our so-called leader, the stable genius telling children that they should know that we love them and take care of them and that they should not be afraid. They have every right to be afraid and not just of assault rifles. In spite of our relatively strict gun laws in New Jersey, guns are easily available on the street. You need a permit to buy a handgun and a lifetime identification card to buy a rifle or other form of long gun. And the state bans almost all forms of semi-automatic pistols and guns.

In spite of the horror caused by attacks such as the one this past week in Florida, where there is no permit or license required to buy any kind of gun, most murders are actually committed not with assault rifles but with handguns. New Jersey did see a drop in homicides in 2017, 335 compared to 363 in 2016.

        Many of the murders involved an intimate partner, an estranged husband or a boyfriend. Since 2002, more than 300 women have been murdered by a romantic or intimate partner, most with guns that were either legally obtained or bought on the street. And a good portion of those women had been to court asking for some form of protection, usually a restraining order.

        But the desolation we face both in New Jersey and across our Nation does not just come from guns. It also comes from the lack of care for our environment. Jeremiah’s description of cities laid in ruins, mountains quaking, and the waste upon the earth referred to the destruction in the wake of the Babylonian invasion.

        The birds have fled the air. In Pompton Lakes, people are suffering from various diseases caused by Dupont’s pumping of toxic solvents under their homes. The fumes have spread up into homes and have been cited as a major cause of the many cancers that people in this small town of just over 11,000 residents have. The company tried to pay off residents back in 2004 with settlements of $950 each to get residents to waive their rights to sue the company.

        The prior administrator of the EPA wanted the area declared a superfund site in 2008 but Christy nixed it, saying it would hurt business there. There had been a 1988 agreement to clean up the site and not pump the solvents into the ground beneath the homes but Dupont ignored it and the prior administration never enforced it.

        The birds have fled the air. The poignant description of a birdless sky by Jeremiah also reflects the devastation in Syria where in some cities, 50 to 80 percent of the buildings have been destroyed, to the refugee camps in Bangladesh filled with fearful Rohingya, or to the many other places where displaced persons try to survive. It really is a terrifying image.

        And although these images refer to those of war and physical desolation, there is another form of desolation: hopelessness and despair that people feel in their hearts, in their souls. Now past the midst of winter, we look forward to the signs of spring with the sounds of birds coming north. Those sounds are different from the frittering of birds fighting over access to a bird feeder or to suet to keep them supplied with the fat they need to survive the winter.

        So often from time to time over the years we have felt hopelessness and despair and we have wanted to hope against hope that God does get indignant and angry at the evil of the world, just as it says in the Psalm. We want to believe that violence will descend on the heads of those who cause evil and suffering in the world. But often we cannot bring ourselves to that point. Where then do we go?

         Although the Psalmist here asks that the evil of the wicked come to an end, it is clear that we ourselves must become the instruments of the Psalmist’s cry to God for justice. The Psalmist uses the metaphor of the Lord being our shield; indeed, what our faithfulness gives us is the spiritual strength to take on the evil we see in the world.

The military imagery used in this Psalm reflects the time and the belief that God himself – and at that time in history God and other gods were seen as real creatures with gender – would act. But at the same time, as the Psalmist put it: those who “conceive evil, and are pregnant with mischief, and bring forth lies. They make a pit, digging it out, and fall into the hole they have made.”

        That imagery seems so apropos of the political situation in our Nation today as we see political leaders tripping over their own words, equivocations, and silence in the face of last week’s school shooting in Florida. People are angry that the cowards in Congress just twiddle their fingers, offering nothing more than “hopes and prayers.”              The group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America [] is out to raise money to take on Congressional members who receive NRA funds.

Looking at the faces of so many women who have lost children, nephews, and grandchildren to gun violence I added my support to this as well as to Gaby Gifford’s gun violence PAC. Congressional members are so beholden to the NRA that even, even when one of their own almost died because some right wing nut shot up her constituent meeting in a supermarket parking lot. At that 2011 shooting six were killed including a child and a U.S. District Court Judge.

         Where does your Representative stand on gun violence? Hopefully more than a few “thoughts and prayers” because if he doesn’t – and it would be a him in this part of New Jersey – he should go! I know how my Representative stands on this issue. Do you?

         Although New Jersey does have some of the tightest gun laws in the Nation, don’t think it can’t happen here. Guns are available for those who want them. In spite of laws that prohibit gun purchases from firearms dealers only, there are no laws governing what are called “private sales” and people often buy guns in other less restrictive states and bring them to New Jersey.

         We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers and empty reassurances to children that they are safe in schools. It’s clear that children are not safe in schools. It’s well past time to take on the gun lobby and do something serious about gun violence. And one way to do that is to eliminate the sales of assault rifles. They were designed to kill and only to kill. And I don’t mean deer and bears.

        Let us pray: God who empowers us to do justice, help us to be instruments of peace by ending the epidemic of gun violence in our schools and communities. In the name of him who is your source of peace, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.