Twenty years ago, Disney released the animated film “Lilo and Stitch.” The story begins in outer space where an alien mad scientist has engineered a creature whose only goal is to wreak havoc and bring destruction. The government officials deem that the small blue koala looking being named “Experiment 626” has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is banished to a deserted planet on the outer edge of the galaxy. Except that he gets loose and ends up on earth.
An Eastertide Sermon based on John 17:20-26.
It is there that Lilo—a young girl in Hawaii who is being raised by her older sister Nani—adopts him as a “dog” from the local animal shelter. She names him Stitch. Lilo and Nani’s parents died in a car accident some time before, and Nani tries desperately hard to keep it all together as Lilo often acts out due to her grief. With the introduction of Stitch into their home, an already fraught situation becomes even more tenuous. A social worker is on high alert and considers moving Lilo into foster care.
On Stitch’s first night in their home, Lilo draws a portrait outline of him, and then colors it in like a thermometer, the red reaching nearly to the top. “This is you,” she says, “and this is your badness level. It’s unusually high for someone your size.” In the following days, Lilo teaches Stitch the concept of the Hawaiian word ‘ohana. She emphatically states, “‘Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” No matter the grief you carry, your badness level, or how much of a pain you may be, you won’t get left behind or forgotten.
On this Sunday between the Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, we join Jesus back on Holy Thursday as he prays for his disciples. He is minutes away from the mob’s arrival at the garden to arrest him, and he’s praying for his followers and those who would join him on the way in the years to come. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Every time we read this, I feel like Jesus is going round and round. He’s in the Father, and the Father is in him and the disciples are there as well, and not only them, but us too. All of us one, just as Jesus and the Father are one. Linked. Connected. Family.
We read these words on this Sunday to remind us that the disciples weren’t left alone; nobody was left behind. Yes, Jesus ascended into the realm where God dwells, but Jesus made it clear that he would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit to them. The Spirit would continue to lead and guide them just as Jesus had done, bringing them into all truth. And that truth is that they are indeed one. Surely there were times when they got on each other’s nerves. When you spend a lot of time with someone, you know how to push their buttons. But Jesus tells them that they—and we—are still one because of Jesus’ abiding love. We are still family. Still ‘ohana.
The students in Mrs. Garcia’s and Mrs. Mireles’ fourth grade class in Uvalde, Texas were watching “Lilo and Stitch” on Tuesday to celebrate the end of the school year. Any elementary school teacher could tell you about the energy levels of kids as summer vacation looms, so of course these veteran teachers wanted to show a Disney film. Especially since they could also then talk about the importance of accepting others with those ten and eleven year old students. About they ways they were connected to one another no matter where they come from. About the need to see the good in others even when they get on your nerves. About how a class and a community are ‘ohana. Family.
Those students didn’t get to see the end of that movie where Stitch learns of the good in himself, and the way their family is strengthened, since an 18 year old young man—a twelfth grader in their district getting ready to graduate—violently interrupted it, coming into that safe space causing chaos. He brought his own grief and pain to bear on them, showing once more that pain and violence beget more pain and violence. That there are some in our world who do not feel connected or loved at all, but totally lost. Who have become so broken, that they think they can never be made whole again, and so act out with no remorse of what their actions will bring.
There have been 216 mass shootings in our country this year, more than ten each week. The satirical online newspaper, The Onion, posts the exact same article if one of these events makes national news—not a given any more—changing only the date, place, and number of victims. It’s titled “‘No Way to Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” We know how this goes. We’ll hear things like the need for extra security, or limiting access to schools, or adding “how to carry and handle weapons” in the curriculum for new teachers. There’ll be lip service to mental health but no funds or resources made available for this ever growing need. We’ll continue to militarize local police forces—Uvalde, a town of 14,000, spends 40% of its tax revenues on police and public safety already—and we’ll look for more guns to save us from the guns in the hands of people already. We’ll hear about all those things long before addressing the question of why an 18 year old can legally buy an AR-15 rifle before he can purchase a beer, or a pack of cigarettes. Or if semi-automatic weapons that can accept large capacity magazines should even be available to civilians. Or why in every state of our country you have to lay down a legal id in order to buy Claritin-D so those purchases can be tracked in a national database, but the same does not hold true for the purchase of a gun. In fact, the CDC can’t even maintain a database to track gun violence due to an amendment on a 1996 bill that banned the use of federal funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” We are a country that values the right to open access to guns no matter the cost. That cost got a whole lot steeper on Tuesday with the loss of 19 children and their two teachers. And the survivors of this week’s massacre—the kids in that classroom waiting more than 50 minutes for the police to do their job—will feel the impact long after the media has lost interest in their story.
And Jesus prays that we would know that we are one. We are family. We are ‘ohana.
For too long we as Christians have followed the way of culture over the way of Christ. The way of rugged individualism over the way of community. We do not push hard enough against the belief that our own individual desires supplant the rights and needs of others. The way of Jesus tells us that we are one in his love. That we are connected to God and other people just as Jesus and God are one with each other. That connection is deeper than anything this world or our nation can promise. So we need to begin living it out more. We need to embrace the call of Jesus to unity and love and mercy and stand against the forces that seek to destroy that.
“How can we respond?” is a question I’ve been asked a few times this week. First, as I said last week after the shooting in Buffalo, we need to pray. It is only when we find solace in the goodness and love of God for ourselves that we can move forward. Second, we must open ourselves up to others. The perpetrator of this crime, only a kid himself, felt largely alone and clearly his brokenness was a red flag. People in our world are hurting, needing connections. We often don’t have time even for our own families and those we cherish. We must put aside the busyness we embrace—another fallen aspect of our culture—in order to spend more time with others.
With those things, we must advocate for more mental health resources and to reduce the stigma of mental health. Millions of those who deal with depression or anxiety are not violent, and would never dream of committing atrocious acts, so let’s not lump together all who are impacted in this way. Mental illness does not automatically lead to violence. Nor should we write off anyone based on their brokenness. Love brings healing, just as Lilo’s love brought new life to Stitch.
Finally, we must work to establish common sense gun laws in our country. Universal background checks on all gun purchases has the support of more than 80% of Americans, but it is not codified into law due to the power of the NRA. Raising the minimum age on gun and ammunition purchases to 21 in line with alcohol and tobacco products seems reasonable as well. Finally, the number of mass shootings and victims has risen significantly since the end of the assault weapons and large-capacity magazine ban in 2004. A return to those prohibitions to save the lives of others clearly would be congruent with the spirit of Jesus. We need to call our country’s devotion to full access to guns what it is: idolatry.
In the end, we are all one. We are all of us family. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so are we connected to God and one another. Friends, it is time for us to hold fast to this call and reach out to love beyond ourselves. Our world needs the love the Jesus embodied; that sacrificial love is the only thing that can bring about the change we need. “‘Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” Nobody. Nobody. And especially not our children. May it be so.