Mother Emanuel — What Can We Say?

A Brutal Interruption

Thursday should have been Pope Francis’ day in the headlines with the release of his encyclical on the environment.   But the Pope was interrupted by the brutal reality of death in the oldest black church in the South, affectionately known in Charleston as “Mother Emanuel.”

Our daughter, whose husband’s roots in the Low Country go back to the 1700’s, said that it felt like 9/11 in Charleston.  Everyone was in shock, not really wanting to watch the painful news coverage but unable to tear themselves away.

What Can We Say? 

Days like these always remind me of Shakespeare’s closing words in his most painful tragedy, “King Lear,”

The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Everyone says what they ought to say — words of sadness, pain, shock, sympathy.  Everyone says we should pray for Charleston.  Perhaps if we spent more time praying before these tragedies happen, they would not happen with such stunning regularity.

But if we speak what we feel, words of sympathy and prayer are not enough. My friend, Donna Claycomb Sokol, is the pastor at Mt. Vernon Place United Methodist in the heart of Washington.  She wrote:

“My emotions keep switching between being heartbroken and angry. Who in the hell purchases a gun for their child who is prone to wear clothing with apartheid South Africa flags attached? How is it that the President offered one of the most prophetic words I’ve heard spoken today when he pointed out how we keep allowing massacres to happen? When will the madness stop? If anything could ever cause me to run for Congress it would be to play a role in enacting tougher gun laws in this nation. I HATE GUNS! And please, dear church, please name racism as a sin – a horrible sickness of our heart as individuals and as a nation…How long, God? How long?”

Donna spoke two words we need to say whether we want to or not: “guns” and “racism.”

It Is About Guns 

President Obama spoke what he felt when he said, “I don’t need to be constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raise. I’ve had to make statements like this too many times.” He named the truth that “innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”    

Acknowledging the political realities in Washington that make reasonable gun control seem like an unreachable goal, he went on to offer this challenge:  “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries…with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”  

That’s not a popular thing to say when Congress is something like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the NRA.  NRA board member, Charles Cotton, had the shocking audacity to blame the massacre on pastor and SC Senator Clementa Pinckney because he supported tougher gun regulations and opposed a bill that would have allowed people to carry concealed guns in churches. Cotton said, “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead.”

The Fox News contortionists trotted out E. W. Jackson, a black pastor and failed political candidate, who said that pastors have an obligation to carry guns in order to protect their congregations. You can count me out on that one!

How long, O Lord, will we continue to endure a gun-addicted culture which refuses to acknowledge the need for reasonable gun control?  When will followers of Jesus take Jesus seriously in his call to the way of non-violence?

It Is About Racism

Again, the Fox News propagandists and some of the political candidates tried to define this tragedy as an attack on Christians and on religious liberty, but it just won’t wash.

There’s a reason the shooter chose to kill black people in one of the most historically significant black churches in America, and it wasn’t because they were reading the bible or praying. Who knows?  He might have even chosen the date because of the importance of Juneteenth as the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in America. What we know is that he is a young man who has been infected with the cancer of white supremacy which is still very much alive among us.

The President again spoke the truth. “This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked. And we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.”  The sad though often unspoken truth is that the subtle cancer of racism continues to infect our lives, relationships, politics and even our religion.

But the President also offered a word of hope when he said, “I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”  

He quoted Dr. King’s words in the aftermath of the murder of four little girls in a black church in Birmingham more than fifty years ago.

“They say to each of us,black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely with who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American Dream.”

Dr. King promised that “God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.”

So, the Pope’s encyclical will have to wait.  In this moment we need to absorb the pain, acknowledge the evil, and recommit ourselves to be the agents of God’s love, grace, justice and peace in this world.  May it be so, Lord.  Amen.

Grace and peace,

Jim

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“God’s Election”

Who’s the Nominee?

I’m amazed by the number of people who looked in the mirror one morning and saw a future President. Two guaranteed predictions about the election marathon are: 1) one of these will be elected and 2) the rest will have something in common with Barsabbas, the loser in the apostolic election in Acts 1:12-26.

For ten days after the Ascension, Jesus’ followers were stuck together in an upper room in Jerusalem. It must have gotten downright claustrophobic.  It’s no surprise that the always impulsive Peter called for an election to replace Judas.  Two candidates we never heard of were nominated, Barsabbas and Matthias.  After a prayer, they cast lots, which was like flipping a coin. Matthias won the election, Barsabbas was the loser, and we never hear of either of them again.

What do we do with a story like that? What will a story like that do with us?

God’s Will?  

Some will say that it was God’s eternal, micromanaged plan for Matthias to be elected and Barsabbas to be the loser through a bizarre process of dumb luck.

There’s a lot of that kind of theology going around today.  A river floods in Texas, a cruise ship overturns in the China Sea, Beau Biden dies at 46…and some well-intended person will say, “God has a reason for that.” It’s a bit of Calvinist theology which uses the word “election” to describe the way God’s predestined will get worked out in this world.  It’s helpful to some people.  Who knows? It might have kept Barsabbas from going into a major depression after he lost the election.

I honor the Calvinist branch of the Christian family tree, but it’s not a branch on which I want to hang my swing. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m a Methodist.

Reading Like a Methodist 

British New Testament scholar and Methodist pastor, James Dunn, offers another reading.

“The very oddity of the disciples’ action…may indicate that these were the actions of bewildered men uncertain what to do, waiting for something to happen, and taking the only action they could in the meantime.”

Maybe Peter did the best he could but acted too quickly. Maybe they rushed ahead electing Matthias while God had already elected Paul to show up in the future.  And maybe God adapted God’s perfect will to be worked out through imperfect people living in an imperfect world.  Something like that happened before when God adjusted God’s own intention and allowed the people of Israel to have a king.  (I Samuel 8:4-22)

What Kind of God Is This? 

You’ve got to ask what kind of God would do something like that? How could the almighty, omnipotent, all-powerful, all-knowing God let people get away with something like that?

Maybe the bible is saying that it’s the kind of God who would rather be at work in this world through persuasion that power, through love than leverage, through inviting our cooperation rather than coopting our freedom.

Maybe it’s the God who never gives up on his saving, redeeming, life-giving purpose, but chooses to accomplish that perfect purpose through imperfect people, who sometimes are dead set on doing things their own way.

Maybe it’s the God who holds his almighty power loosely and is willing to give his people the freedom to choose what they want and to experience the consequences of their choices.

Maybe it’s the God who rejoices when his people get it right and who weeps when they get it wrong, the way Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, saying, “If only you knew the things that make for peace.”

Maybe it’s the God who hangs in there with willful, rebellious folks like all of us even when we hang his Son on a cross.

Maybe it’s the God who is able to burst new life from a tomb; the God who is not the cause of everything but the redeemer of anything; the God who is relentlessly at work for good for all the children of the world who in God’s grace are called, chosen, elected to be God’s children.

Maybe it’s the God who accomplishes his extraordinary purpose through ordinary people who become the people through who God’s Kingdom actually comes and God’s will gets done in this world.

Extraordinary God…Ordinary People 

Luke says there were 120 people with the disciples on the day of Pentecost.  Assuming that Matthias and Barsabbas were among them, there were 118 people whose names we will never know, whose stories we will never tell. Maybe that’s where we can find ourselves in this story.

Sometimes we are the winners. Sometimes we are the losers.

Sometimes we get it right stand in the glow of God’s rejoicing. Sometimes we get it wrong and stand in desperate need of God’s mercy.

Sometimes we’re not at all sure of what we are doing and all we can do is blunder ahead, making the best choices we can make when we have to make them, daring to trust that either in us, or in spite of us, God’s Kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth.

David Brooks has become something of a Hebrew prophet for us these days with his book, “The Road to Character.” In one of his interviews prior to the release of the book he said:

There’s something just awesome about seeing somebody…imitate and live the non-negotiable truth of Jesus Christ…One of Christianity’s greatest gifts to the culture is simply the example of Christian joy lived out in a natural way…nothing could be more persuasive than that. (http://thegathering.com/e-updates/transcript-david-brooks-gathering-2014/)

Maybe that’s the way God’s election ultimately happens.  Don’t get me wrong: the Presidential election really matters.  The values and convictions being expressed in this political season will make a lasting difference in the life of this nation.  But the God revealed in the bible is also the God who works through anonymous people like Barsabbas and Matthias who imitate and live the non-negotiable truth of Jesus Christ; ordinary people who become the extraordinary agents of God’s love and grace in the world.

You’ve have been elected!

Grace and peace,

Jim