Hevel Havalim

A Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio

Texts: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; St. Luke 12:18-23

Melancolia – Albrecht Dürer

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the one who has conquered the grave and has set us free to be the Kingdom of God erupting forth in this violent, deathly world. Amen.

Know that this is not what I intended to say today. I have an entire other sermon that I will post and make available to y’all online. But as we went to bed in the aftermath of one mass shooting and woke up to reports of another, I feel compelled by the Holy Spirit to address the news today.

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” But there’s something off about the translation. The Common English Bible renders it this way: “Perfectly pointless! Everything is pointless!” Or better yet, as the Jewish Publication Society translates it, “Utter futility! All is futile!”

But even this doesn’t quite capture the Hebrew: Hevel havalim, “Vapor in the air! Everything is as impermanent as vapor!”

As I stand before you today, I recall that my very first Sunday here was October 1st. Just hours after we departed, a gunman opened fire on a crowded concert in Las Vegas. And our thoughts and prayers seemed like hevel havalim.

A week later, a gunman opened fire on a church service in Texas. And our thoughts and prayers seemed like hevel havalim.

On Ash Wednesday the following February, as we were marked with an ashen cross reminding us of our mortality, a gunman opened fire in a school. And our thoughts and prayers seemed like hevel havalim.

Last Saturday and Sunday, two mass shootings rocked New York and California. And our thoughts and prayers seemed like hevel havalim.

Yesterday, a gunman drove more than eight hours across Texas to open fire on a Walmart in El Paso. Twenty beloved children of God were murdered. I want this to sink in: in a city with an annual homicide rate of only eighteen people, twenty were killed in a single day by a single man. And today our thoughts and prayers seem li…This morning, before we could even offer up our intercessions for the people of El Paso, a gunman opened fire on a crowded street. In just one minute he managed to kill nine people. And today our thoughts and prayers seem like hevel havalim.

Every time this happens, we have the inevitable conversation: “Our thoughts and prayers our with the victims.”

Then: “What can we do to fix this?”

But calls for solutions are met with, “Don’t be hasty. Now is not the time to talk policy.”

The time for thoughts and prayers seems long, and the time to talk policy never arrives. It vanishes like vapor on the wind.

On this, the day of the two hundred fifty first mass shooting in 2019, with five months left to go in the year, some facts:

  • There have been more mass shootings than days this year.
  • Gun violence claims 40,000 human lives in this country every year.
  • Mass shooters look like me: young to middle-aged white men. You have been told that the threat is brown, but this is a lie. It’s white.
  • These attacks are often closely linked with and motivated by sexism, domestic violence, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism.
  • Despite cries that this is about mental health, persons with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Twenty years ago, the day of the Columbine massacre, I was a fifth grader. I came of age during the time of mass shootings, and the threat of gun violence at school was ever-present. When I was in middle school, we went on lock-down when a suspicious person was seen on campus and thought to have a weapon. Now, elementary school children practice lock-down drills the same way we practiced evacuating in case of an accidental fire. When I was in high school, we evacuated for ten bomb threats in four days; I remember worrying that it was a trap to get us outside in one place where we would be easy targets. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the shooter used just such a tactic.

My worst fears as a child – fears that were unimaginable during my parents’ time in school – have become dreadful realities.

And it all seems to be hevel havalim.

The Teacher, the person speaking in Ecclesiastes, is commenting on the futility of life. If you seek after fame and fortune or pursue knowledge, if you are a king, a general, a priest, or a pauper, you will still end at the grave. Our time on this earth is like vapor chasing after the wind.

And if we do not act, if we do not match our “thoughts and prayers” with meaningful action, then the words of our lips will vanish on the wind because faith without works is so much hevel havalim.

We may store up for ourselves treasures and money and power in this life like the rich fool in today’s Gospel, building bigger silos, but the day will come when it will vanish like vapor in the air. But, if we place our trust in Jesus Christ, the one who has tasted death and violence but has overcome, if we heed his call to empty ourselves out for the sake of others, if we take seriously the claim that what we do for the “least of these” we do also for Christ, if we take seriously our baptismal vows to “care for others…and work for justice and peace,” if we raise up our voices and demand that action follows from thought, if we seek to put our prayer into deeds, then by the grace of God we may find some more permanent peace.

My beloved, we are but stewards: of our possessions, our time, our power. God has granted it to us to use for the sake of others. Now is the time for us to put our trust in the glorious Resurrection of Christ our Lord, trusting that God will set all things to right, and now is the time for us to raise up our voices, acting faithfully as stewards of the new life God has given us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s