Texts: Job 38:1-11; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
If you are familiar with the book of Job, you know it is a story about a righteous, God-fearing man who is very prosperous. He loses everything, and his three friends come to comfort him in his grief. They do this admirably—until they open their mouths. Most of the book is Job and his friends going back and forth, postulating why God has caused this terrible misfortune to come upon Job. The passage we hear today comes toward the end of the book when God shows up in person (so to speak) and scolds all four for presuming to have knowledge equal to God’s. Where were they when God laid the foundations of the earth? The point of the book is that no one can know why misfortune happens, or why God acts; only God knows.
But that isn’t true this week. We know exactly why the shooting in Charleston happened. This was not an act of God, but the act of a person poisoned by hatred. In the coming days and weeks, we will hear pundits and politicians and spokespeople and all manner of well-meaning citizens of this country reflect on this tragedy and give their interpretation of what the problem is and how to fix it. I will not be talking about any of the things they will be talking about, because as well-meaning as all those people will be, they will not be talking about the root of the problem. The real problem here is sin, and specifically our misunderstanding of it.
For most of us, when we think of sin, we think of the type of things that Dylann Roof did. He hated. He plotted. He murdered. What we don’t think of is the larger, scarier, more dangerous problem of why he did those things. Somehow, he came to believe that black people were a threat to him and his freedom. Somebody taught him that African Americans are a problem to be dealt with, rather than people to be known. Somehow, he came to the conclusions that they had to die, and that the solution our country needs most is a new civil war. These things point to the greater problem of sin.
What this act of barbarism points out, along with the violence both committed by and perpetrated against police and the riots and demonstrations we’ve seen in recent times, is that we still have a problem with race. We as a country have been telling ourselves that racism is extinct, but it very clearly is not. I have personally talked to people who have told me in all seriousness that they believe black people are inferior to white people. I suspect that this is not news to any of us gathered here. However, this crime is a sad reminder that racism is a problem even within our own church.
Bishop Elizabeth Eaton released a statement this week condemning the violence in Charleston. In that statement, she acknowledged that two of the victims, including Pr. Pinckney, were graduates of a Lutheran seminary. I, myself, attended seminary classes alongside African Methodist Episcopal students in Gettysburg, and these could easily have been classmates of mine.
In addition, Bp. Eaton also confirmed that Dylann Roof is a member of an ELCA congregation. Not only did this depravity occur in a church, not only were our sisters and brothers killed—either of which should bring this close to home for us—but the killer was also one of us. What happened at Mother Emanuel this week is not a case of some backwards people somewhere else. It’s not a Southern problem, not an Eastern problem, it is an American problem. It is a Gig Harbor problem. It is our problem.
I don’t mean to insinuate that we are to blame. This congregation is home to some of the warmest, most welcoming people I know. I would like to believe (and I think I do) that if Roof had been a son of this congregation, things would have gone differently this week. Yet, the fact that this happened at all reminds us that racism is our reality. Whether we are part of the problem or not, it is part of the fabric of our society. If you were here when Phyllis' grandson Mike from the highway patrol spoke at adult forum, you heard how his family has experienced racism in our town. If you have been across the bridge into Tacoma, you know (better than I) that racism is a problem here.
Racism and sin are as real for us as they are for the community of Charleston this week. Like it or not, Dylann Roof is our brother. Somehow, he decided mass murder was the appropriate action to take, and somehow, our Lutheran Church did not dissuade him. In the wake of this evil act, we are left to ask ourselves, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
So, what do we do? I wish I had an answer. I wish there was a big, red button I could push that would make the problem go away, or a single action item I could offer up that would let us all know just what we could do to help. Sadly, I have neither of those things. What I do have is faith. I am here as a member of Christ’s Church because I believe that God offers us help.
Secular humanists believe that we all have it within ourselves to be good and to bring goodness into the world, if only we work hard enough at it. What I have seen convinces me otherwise: I have seen too many people like Dylann Roof, people who, from the best of intentions, bring only evil and chaos. I am here as a Christian and as a minister of the gospel because I believe that only God is capable of providing the kind of healing we need. I believe that if we are to find a solution to this, it won’t come from within us, but that we are completely dependent on God to show us the way to the kingdom.
I am here because I believe that healing and reconciliation will not come through arming pastors with firearms, nor will it come from being intolerant of intolerance, nor will it come from simply trying to be nice and polite in the face of evil. Even as so many of my generation turn away from the Church, I am still a member of Christ’s Church because I believe that healing and reconciliation will only come from our radical and sacrificial devotion to God’s way of life. Somehow, I learned that God is love, not hate. Someone showed me what that love looks like. In my case, that somehow and those someones are thanks to the Church. I remain committed to the Church because in spite of all the ways it has failed because I remain convinced that God is still working through it.
On Wednesday, we gathered for worship as God’s Church, and we heard these words from the letter to the Hebrews: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (Heb 13.3) For us, that means that today we remember those who mourn by mourning with them, we remember the perpetrator as though we were perpetrators with him, and we remember the dead as though having died with them.
Something has to change. Something has to happen beyond just his sermon and these prayers today. I don’t know how to fix this; but I do believe that we can’t address this problem by continuing as we have, pretending this problem is far away and of no immediate concern to us. We need to talk about it amongst ourselves and with the world. When we distance ourselves from the problem—saying that it is not ours, that we are not like that—the problem persists because we fall into the trap of sin. Charles Baudelaire wrote “the finest trick of the devil is to persuade you he doesn’t exist.” When we deny that the problem of racism is ours, we are deceived in the same way. As God’s people, we must continue to raise our own awareness of the racism in our world and calling it to the attention of the world around us. People need to know that the Church stands with Christ
Whatever our answer might be, I believe it lies in community—radical, self-giving community. That means we are not doing it right unless our response involves giving something up for the sake of those sisters and brothers of ours who are suffering, because only when their pain is ours will we be truly compelled to respond. I believe this because it is what Jesus did in the incarnation: he set aside all the power and glory and authority due the Son of God, and became a peasant carpenter, preaching the kingdom of God until he died on a cross for crimes he did not commit. This is our model of God’s kingdom. This is the Word of God made flesh—the Word that lives with us, the Word that dies with us, and—we hope—the Word that is resurrected with us.
Friends, sin is our reality. This week has shown that all too clearly. When we deny that racism or bigotry or whatever evil out there is not our problem, that’s when Dylann Roof happens. That’s when one of our own falls victim to the voices of hate and evil that pervade our human community. Broken as we are, in our baptism Christ has called us to be a part of the solution. Though we may falter, we carry on because only the God who loves us and calls us can save us from what we have seen in Charleston, in Ferguson, in Manhattan, in Cleveland, and what we have seen right here in Gig Harbor.
In the wake of Charleston, we cry out today in fear and rage, in sorrow and in solidarity, in hope, and in faith, “Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy. Let it begin with us.”