The last two weeks have been tumultuous for our nation. A week and a half ago, a young white man entered Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat through Bible study and then pulled out a gun and, while shouting racial epithets, murdered nine people.
Once the initial outrage and heartache settled in, my next thought was, “I have to have this conversation with my son again. I have to tell him again that it’s not safe to be black, that there are men and women in this nation, in 2015, who hate so intensely they will kill.”
Some expressed shock that day. But anyone who has kept their finger on the pulse of racial politics in the United States knows the sad truth: that this is not shocking. This is not an isolated incident. This is just one more horrific act in a history of 400 years of racism. In the ten days since the Mother Emanuel AME massacre, three more black churches have burned under suspicious circumstances in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
As a nation, my friends, we are hemorrhaging. We are bleeding violence. What are people of faith to do in the face of seemingly unstoppable evil? Several relatives of the Charleston shooting victims faced the murderer in the courtroom and publicly offered their forgiveness. Certainly, this is the hard task that Jesus gave us, the act he modeled and continues to model for us. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Bless them who curse you. One relative spoke of no room for hate in the house of love her community has built. Another spoke of the need for second chances.
But many have spoken out against this forgiveness. They worry – justifiably – that this kind of forgiveness is too easy, too cheaply given. They say that these well-intended expressions of Christian love and forgiveness give America an excuse to ignore the very difficult issues of race and violence that keep us at the brink of explosion. The Charleston shooter wanted a race war. How many others are like him? And if we politely forgive and excuse, how many more will follow him? How do we confront and move past our shared history of violence? These are tough questions.
As a follower of Christ, I believe in the power of forgiveness. When we forgive, we lay down a burden. We don’t allow hate or anger to twist us. Forgiveness allows the pure love of Christ to move in us and through us. His forgiveness – so freely offered – brings us to the holy table each Sunday on bended knee. Forgiveness breaks shackles and heals broken hearts.
And yet, I don’t think that, as powerful and inspiring as it is, forgiveness alone can change our culture. Forgiveness and good will alone cannot stop the wounds of this nation, or raise us from a culture of death.
Today we read the story from Mark, the story about Jairus’s daughter raised from the dead, about the woman hemorrhaging for years who reached in faith for the hem of Jesus’s cloak and found herself healed. This story has both moved me and confounded me over the years. When I read this story, I want to believe. So often I do believe. I follow Christ because I believe that his is the way of healing. I believe that what Christ lays his hands upon lives. I believe that if, as a nation, we reached out to touch the cloak of Christ, we can be healed. I believe this.
But I confess moments of smallness and doubt, when I wonder why Jesus would heal this woman, raise this child from the dead, but not others. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know why children are abused. I don’t know why veterans sacrifice the best years of their lives and come home to die on the streets. I don’t know why innocent people are gunned down. I will spare you the easy platitudes about building character and faith, because in moments so tragic they shake the roots of our faith, we need more than the easy answers. When we are lost in our private – or public – catastrophes, we can’t help but ask, “Why me? Why, dear Lord, did you not save me from this pain?” So often we reach for Jesus’s cloak and nothing happens. We don’t feel miraculously whole.
But this I do know: sometimes that miracle happens. Sometimes we reach through our tears and our anger and we find faith and wholeness. Sometimes our wounds are stopped. Sometimes we or our loved ones are raised from death. And often, these miracles happen in ways we don’t expect, in ways we have trouble recognizing.
And even more than this, I believe that we – the handful of us gathered this morning in this building – we are called to be the cloak of Christ. We are called to do the work of moving among the crowds of the broken and bleeding, of allowing others to reach out and touch the healing power of Christ through us.
Now, I hear often that there is no place for politics in church, that church should not be a divisive place, that we’ll drive people away with strong opinions. But here’s the thing: Christianity is divisive. To be meaningful it must be divisive. Jesus was a divisive character with strong opinions, radical opinions, about poverty, about economics, about power and complacency. He and his followers lived and died over those opinions.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus says in Matthew chapter ten. “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”
This is a verse I’ve stumbled over many times, because it goes against everything I thought I knew about Jesus and about the Christian way of peace, about beating our swords into ploughshares. But this is what I didn’t understand until recently: Jesus isn’t talking about justifying religious war or violence. He’s not asking for another crusade. He doesn’t want us converting our neighbors at gunpoint. What he’s talking about is waging battle against evil. Yes, we are called upon to forgive. But we are also called upon to pick up the sword and fight for the cause of justice. Jesus asks us to choose sides.
If church is only a nice place to visit, to feel the love of God, to feel good about ourselves and share the peace with others like us, if we only want to fill the pews with other nice people who will open their wallets as long as they aren’t offended, we are not doing the work that Jesus died for. We are not healing our homes, communities, and nations. Jesus spoke out against injustice, and we must have the courage to do the same. We must work out how to extend the grace of God to everyone, especially those who are denied rights you and I enjoy.
Last Friday, President Obama spoke at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was one of those slain in Charleston. Rev. Pinckney was not just a minister. He was a senator and political activist who pushed for public awareness of racial injustices and laws to protect the exploited. He organized and led protests. He was loud and he encouraged his congregants to be loud. His career was not without controversy. But he engaged himself and his community in the work of God.
This work is messy. It ruffles feathers. It comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. We might disagree about how to do the work of God, how we bring healing to the broken masses. But if we sit comfortably on the sidelines because we’re afraid to engage in that messy work, because we’re afraid to do or say the wrong thing, because we’re afraid to fail and apologize and figure out how to work together and try again and again, we are not fulfilling our part of the bargain.
“Our calling,” Rev. Pinckney once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our church resides.”
President Obama reminded us in his eulogy that “to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.”
But what moved me most about the President’s remarks was his description of the role the Black church has played in American history:
The church is and always has been the center of African-American life…. Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah; rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.
That’s what the black church means. Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate. And there’s no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel, a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a phoenix from these ashes.
When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, services happened here anyway, in defiance of unjust laws. When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps. A sacred place, this church. Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country; a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all. That’s what the church meant.
That’s what church means. That’s what it means to be a Christian. That we do the work both in these walls and outside them to bring justice to an unjust world, to bind up the broken, bleeding wounds, to forgive – yes, definitely to forgive and seek solace in our faith, to reach out for our own healing – but then to walk among the crowds as Jesus did and be his cloak. We must allow ourselves to be jostled and touched and moved in surprising, frightening, and unpredictable ways and channel the healing power of God through those touches.
This weekend I watched the movie Selma with my family, which documents Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight for voting rights in the state of Alabama. The movie reminded me again that – yes, there have been terrible things done in the name of God – but that much of the work of justice and civil rights of the last century has sprung directly from courageous church leaders and faithful congregants who followed the example Jesus set for us.
Yesterday at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City, our first African-American Presiding Bishop was elected. Rev. Michael Curry has spent his career empowering the poor, the elderly, and the vulnerable. He advocates for gun safety, immigration reform, and marriage equality, and supports the rights of black and Latino communities in particular.
Politics and religion, in my mind, are so deeply entangled it’s hard to distinguish them. Politics are the outward struggle for inner beliefs. Policy comes from what we believe about the dignity and worth of every human being. If we sever politics from religion, we are left as frozen statues in a dead monument. We have no power.
Friends, we stand on the cusp of history. Sometimes, we struggle and reach and we feel alone in the darkness. Our faith is tested. But sometimes, history leaps forward in bright flashes, touched by the healing grace of God. We can be a part of that. Our salvation is not merely individual, but collective.
In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said,
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented…. There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person, … one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs…. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.
The future lies before us, and every moment is a moment of grace. What might we do with those moments?