Last summer we gathered as a Church Body (NALC) in convocation in the beautiful, historic city of Charleston, South Carolina. We were warmly welcomed by everyone we met, including hotel personnel, restaurant staff, people from the Citadel, and local residents. We wandered through the charming historic district and marveled at the old buildings so full of character and stories waiting to be told. We even rode on a carriage drawn by a horse named "Justice." It is impossible to comprehend what happened on Wednesday evening, June 17, 2015, in this delightful, seaside city.
As human beings we heard the news with great shock and grief, that our fellow Christians had been murdered at the historic Emanuel AME church during a Bible study class. The church is supposed to be a safe place. God's house is meant to be a sanctuary for the lost, downtrodden, and spiritually hungry - not a place we have to worry about being in when we're there! We wonder, "Is anything sacred any longer?"
As preachers, what shall we say to our congregations on Sunday? They will expect a word from us in the face of this horrific passing of events. Words like "terrorism," "hate crime," and "race wars," flash on our television screens and across our social media pages. This is not a political issue for conservatives and liberals to hash out! This is not the time to take sides and play the blame game. Rather, it is a time to cling to the cross of Christ. To follow in the example of 9 brothers and sisters who were slain by one person who was filled with hate, rage, and evil. As believers we know that Christ has already won the day! We rejoice with these brothers and sisters who put their faith and their very lives in God's hands, trusting that his promises are sure and true. And we know the end of the story! We know that Christ is our triumphant king and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing! Not murder or martyrdom, not hate or malice, not destruction and certainly not death.
As we grieve the loss of life and the blatant disregard for the preciousness of all life, we look to Christ for assurance. As God always does, he uses what we have in front of us to help us trust in him and to comfort our broken hearts. We can draw on the readings from the lectionary for June 21st to address the pain and suffering we feel. God gives us his Word to strengthen us and keep us going in the face of evil and destruction.
St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, a word of hope and encouragement for their faith journey. These believers were no strangers to the evil of the world: idolatry, licentiousness, violence, and betrayal. We need to hear that same word as we struggle with answers to such questions that cloud our minds: "Why did this happen?" "Where is God in the midst of this tragedy?"
Take a look at our Second Reading for June 21st- 2 Corinthians 6:1-13:
1 Working together with [Jesus] (the one who knew no sin and who made believers righteous before God), then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. 3 We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; 7 by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
When we take up the cross of Christ and follow Jesus, it is nothing less than HIS cross that we take up. We can only imagine that every person in that Bible study group were ones who understood what it meant to take up the cross of Christ. In our Baptism our old sinful selves are put to death and we rise to new life in Christ Jesus, following him all the way to the cross of Calvary. But we know that the cross is not the end of the journey. We are promised a resurrection like his since we suffer a death like his. We are promised a forever with him who is our brother, Savior, and King.
That promise does not negate our suffering here on earth, but it does afford us a different way of life. A life that, even though it might be filled with hardship, famine, weakness, persecution, and yes -even death- we are promised and we possess EVERYTHING that matters! The world sees us a weak because of our love and forgiveness for killers, but this is God's command on our life. In that love we possess everything! The world sees us as foolish for giving of our money, time, and energy to make this world peaceful and filled with light. God calls us to be light for the world and fills us with the Holy Spirit. With that Holy Spirit, we possess everything! The world seeks to take our life away from us and leave our loved ones in despair. Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted in his name. At witnesses (martyrs) of the faith, we possess everything!
There is no guarantee that what happened in Charleston won't happen in your city. There are no guarantees in the life of faith - except for the ultimate guarantee of life in Christ. And isn't that what we live for? Isn't that why we are here, sharing this message?
The mayor of Charleston was reported as saying, "This hateful person came into this community with some crazy idea that he would be able to divide, and all he did was make us more united, and love each other even more." The people in that Bible study, even though they didn't know it at the time, welcomed their own murderer to study and pray with them. If they had known would they have done anything differently? I don't think so. They even said to him what we all say to those who join us in study, "We enjoyed having you with us."
These faithful disciples did what they were called to do and they did it in love! They possess everything that matters! Amen.