Guns into Plowshares: Forging Life from a Firearm

A Sermon by Rev. Elizabeth Lerner Maclay

Video of worship service

Sermon Text

Opening Words

Good morning again!  Special welcome to our Mother’s Day service which, this year, is an interfaith observance we are holding together with Muslim, Jewish and Christian friend and neighbor congregations across this state.  Our worship this morning has three purposes – to lift up our ideas and urgency and pain around the pressing need for gun control in our state and in our country.  To dedicate a firearm to the purpose of creation and life.  And to affirm our support, as people of faith, for the gun control measures before our state legislature right now.

The clergy involved in the Guns to Plowshares project chose this weekend for many reasons, especially because we are mindful of the many children and parents who have been lost to gun violence.  And because we know this issue needs our support now as the legislature enters their final weeks in session.  But as we learned, Mother’s Day was first conceived of by early feminist Julia Ward Howe in the aftermath of the American Civil War and then the Franco-Prussian War.  In 1870 she wrote her passionate ‘Appeal to womanhood throughout the world’ to establish a mother’s day that would support the establishment of peace.  “From the bosom of the devastated dearth a voice goes up with our own.  It says:  Disarm, disarm!  The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.  Blood does now wipe out dishonor, nor violence vindicate possession.”  Pointing out how often men left the anvil and plow to answer the call of war, she declared it time for that current to change, for the laying down of arms and returning to the anvil, where tools are wrought, and the plow, whereby seeds are sown, ‘man as the brother of man,’ she wrote, ‘each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.’

Though Julia Ward Howe’s words, as always, were resonant and moving, Mother’s Day didn’t gain traction until 1905 when Anna Jarvis, inspired by her mother’s experience of caring for both Confederate and Union soldiers wounded in the American Civil War, began working to establish Mother’s Day as an American holiday to promote peace, and address public health issues, along with honoring mothers.  This time it took hold state by state and in 1914 was made a national holiday.  But more and more it was about mothers only, and more and more it became commercialized, and less and less was it about non-violence.

This morning we honor and return to some of Mother’s Day’s original roots, promoting non-violence, choosing to disarm ourselves of weapons of war, remembering that everyone is someone’s beloved child, sibling, parent, friend, love and human lives are precious, precious – and guns are not.

As many of you already know, later in this service we will take a firearm that has been donated for this purpose, and dedicate it to the service of creativity and life.  This means we will have a real firearm, more specifically, a Winchester 1400 12 gauge semiautomatic shotgun, that has been disarmed and permanently disabled by the Providence Police Department, in this Meeting House, in our sacred space.  Is this shocking and difficult?  Yes.  Some of us have been impacted by gun violence ourselves, directly or indirectly.  For some of us, it will be hard to see or be in the same space with this firearm.  Please know, none of us does this lightly or easily.  We do it because we are living in shocking and difficult times, and we cannot be genteel, here in this sanctuary where we speak of courage and relevance and love and transformation and justice – we cannot merely be genteel and predictable if we are to be relevant in these times we are living in when schools and clubs and churches are the scenes of mass shootings.  But we also do this with hope and with resolution.  We will not accept the conditions and laws that value guns more than human beings.  We do not want our children to have to be taught to shelter from active shooters in drills at school – children so young that the drills are called ‘skunk drills’ and the children are taught to hide from a smelly skunk who will spray them if the skunk realizes there are people nearby.  Our teachers should not have to protect their students from the trauma of this threat even as they work to prepare their students for it.

With our worship this morning, we call for responsible gun control and we declare that for us this is an issue of justice even, yes of faith, because our faith holds as primary belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.  And so for us it is an article of faith that the laws of our land must protect human life by instituting safe and responsible and banning the sale of high capacity magazines, banning the sale of assault weapons, banning guns in schools.  This is not about the 2nd amendment or outlawing all guns or demonizing guns for hunting and sport, along with those who use them.  No, we are, some of us, responsible gun owners who want gun control here in this church;  we have responsible gun owners who also want gun control in our families, and among our friends.  This is about controlling and regulating guns, and abolishing the sale of weapons of war that allow tens or even hundreds of people, teens, children, to be mown down in a crowd, in a concert, in a classroom.  We are not waiting for the next shooting, we are not waiting for a shooting here in our beloved home state, we are not waiting, it is past time, thoughts and prayers are not enough, they are not even enough for us people of faith, they are definitely not enough as responses from our legislators.  We’ve got the thoughts and prayers covered, that’s our job.  Legislation is their job.

Following this service, we greatly hope you’ll gather in the Parish House for hearty refreshments and the gun control letter and card writing – we have draft letters you can copy or sign, blank paper, pre-printed postcards, pens, crayons you name it.   And following this Mother’s Day we greatly hope you’ll join with people from this congregation and many others at the Smith St. entrance State House this coming Tuesday, May 15 from 3:30 to 4:30, for our interfaith rally and to present all the cards and letters from all our united communities to our legislators.  If we all show up – it will make a difference.  More information about this is available in the Parish House following our service.  All that is what faith in action looks like.

Prayer and Meditation (in words, silence and song)

In Isaiah it says the most high shall judge between the nations, and arbitrate for many peoples.  Judge between many nations.  Arbitrate for many peoples.  Because not only one nation is right.  Not only one people is right, not only one person is right.  Everyone else is not inhabiting my world.  We are all inhabiting each others’ worlds, which is why we must beat swords into plowshares, guns into garden tools, because even thousands of years ago they knew that truth is complicated and life is precious, is sacred.  A gun says that only one person is right and only one person matters.  But we know the making of war does not belong between neighbors, and people are not merely targets, and weapons of war have no place in civil society.  And therefore we pray and we hope with all our hearts:

May our legislators head the voices of the many and enact the necessary laws to protect our individuals and our assembly in schools, in celebrations, in congregations, from firearms.

May our determination and our unity overcome the might of lobbyists and lucre.

May we have the urgency, despite all the challenges and changes in all our days, to show up for what matters most.

May we have the humility to learn from each other and grow in our abilities, and in our relationships, towards reconciliation.

May we have the tenacity to persevere for the safeguards and sanity that must be the birthright and human rights of all people everywhere.

May we have patience and courage in the face of hostility or intimidation.

We Unitarian Universalists work towards a heaven on this earth;  may all we do lead us heavenward one step at a time.  Amen.

Dedication: Forging Life from a Firearm

I call forward Officer Peter C. Salmons, friend of this church and serving in the Providence Police Department, bearing the firearm we are dedicating today.

Thank you Peter.

This gun was a working and valuable firearm, a shotgun created for sport.  It was made to impact and shatter what it hits, and was donated by a valued friend of this church.   He wrote this about why he did it:

I am donating a shotgun that I used to shoot sporting clays. This gun is not an assault weapon, but donating it represents the stand I am taking to keep my grandchildren safe, and to get reasonable gun safety back in our country. I’m not for taking away guns, but feel strongly about background checks and magazine size. This is a small step I am taking for gun safety awareness. My stepdaughter upon receiving notice of this donation let me know that her 4 year old began ‘skunk drills’ this week.

Here in this Meeting House, we engage paradoxes and changing ontological realities often.  Perhaps that helps now when I say: This is a gun and it is not a gun.  It will always be a gun and it will never again be a gun.

Given by generosity, disabled with wisdom, it has come to us in pieces, as some of our hearts are in pieces, for the lives lost, for the bullets fired, for the children and youth and women and men killed by accident and on purpose.

We are changing this gun, its nature and its future, with our vision and our will, as we aim to change the nature and future of many guns.  This shotgun will be given to an artist who will use it lock, stock and barrel, literally all its parts, for garden tools.  They will make of it a shovel or hoe, a trowel or a hand rake.  We will receive it when it has been transformed and use it in its new form on the earth of this church for growing things and the care of new life.

Congregational Litany of Dedication

We dedicate this shotgun, this morning, to a new and entirely different kind of impact: the purpose of creation, and of life.

May its wood keep its beauty as it serves this purpose of creation and life.

May its metal keep its strength as it serves this purpose of creation and life.

May the future work of this gun be fruitful;

not only for creation and life, but also spirit and hope, for many years to come.

May the generosity and wisdom and work that gave this firearm into our care, spread from this morning, out into the world.

May our society renounce the deadly illusions that make guns sacred

and each other targets.

May this day, and this dedication, matter more beyond these walls than within.


Closing Words

We are building a new way. This day we forge life from a firearm.  Because as it has been said, ‘the opposite of war isn’t peace.  It’s creation.’  (Jonathan Larson)

In the midst of this time of storm, we are together and we know what we have to do.  And because we are together, and because we know what we have to do, this storm we are living in, this storm we are living through, will pass.