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Monday, June 22, 2015

Sermon in response to Shootings in Charleston, June 17, 2015

“Living God’s Story” (2 Cor. 6:1-13; 7:2-4)
 June 21, 2015

        Paul pleads with the Corinthian Christians, “Make room in your hearts for us. … I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (7:2, 4).
        In this church, rich Christ followers looked down upon impoverished Christ followers and sometimes flaunted their wealth.  Within this church, there was serious misunderstanding about appropriate sexual ethics for followers of Jesus.  The Corinthians Christians struggled with how spiritual gifts should be exercised worship.  In some cases people with particular gifts were elevate above others even though the gifts were supposed to be from God.  The Corinthian Christians struggled in their understanding of resurrection.  And they did not know how to leave behind paganism and polytheism and give full devotion to Jesus.
        The reason much of the best practical teaching in the New Testament comes from Paul’s letters to Corinth is the believers in that church struggled in so many areas.  Paul was at his wits’ end trying to show these new believers how to live as a community –the body of Christ, the family of God.  Furthering complicating his task were other teachers who came claiming that the Corinthians should ignore Paul.  These others who, according to Paul claimed to be “super-apostles,” made his task of shepherding this complicated group even harder. 
        At times Paul came down quite hard on the Corinthians.  Numerous commentators I have read believe he saw himself as a spiritual father to the Corinthians and the father’s discipline is apparent in both letters.  Yet, he tenaciously holds onto joy. 
Make room in your hearts for us. 
I have great pride in you.
I am overflowing with joy.

Today, churches across America must cling to joy and love and fellowship.  We must cling to who we are in Christ tightly for I fear what is coming.  Recently a 14-year-old African American girl at a pool party was roughed up by a stressed out white police officer.[i]  This was the latest in an unfathomable string of racially-motivated incidents.  I know authorities say it wasn’t about race.  They always say it isn’t about race.  Yet, coincidentally, these stories have a consistent them; unarmed minority youths are bullied, abused or killed by armed white people, often white law enforcement officers.  The story Texas was the latest until this past Wednesday, June 17. 
On that day, Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC was doing what thousands of churches across America do on Wednesday night.  They were having Wednesday night prayer service.  I have probably been a part of close to 1000 of these services in my life.  It is an activity that is a normal part of church life in many traditions.  In this case, it was a small group, all African American.  And a white man came asking to see the pastor.  This church community did what the church does.  They brought the man in, welcomed him, took him to the pastor, and made him feel like he was a part. 
Clearly he looked different, but when we are in Christ, our differences are signs of God’s beauty.  We celebrate our uniqueness as we join our hearts to one another.  They were doing what churches do.  That’s what really gets me about this story.  The Emmanuel Church was creating safe space for Dylann Roof to seek God.  He sat in that safe space for nearly an hour, and then violated it as he killed 9 people who were welcoming him into their circle.
When we recite the names – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the rest, and the places – Staten Island, Cleveland, Baltimore, Missouri – and now we add this sad chapter, I fear America is on a collision course with a violent explosion in racial tension.  I believe the worst is coming.  But that does not have to be all that is coming.
We who bear the name ‘Christian’ can to take this time to show what it means to be ‘in Christ.’  We must do this.  We have to go out of our way to hold up a competing narrative to the one that’s ripping across our nation.  We have to stand in the power of the Gospel and say, “There is another story, one in which people, black and white, Asian and Hispanic, male and female celebrate one another and love each other.”  We have to tell that story as the story of racism rages loudly. 

A part of our proclamation of the Gospel is to weep for Clementa Pinckney, Daniel Simmons Sr., Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Ethel Lance.  These people are brothers and sisters – our brothers and sisters in Christ.  When our family dies, it hurts.  When death comes as the church is being the church, we weep loudly and deeply.  That must be part of our statement of faith.

So too we must commit to being the safe space where all can come and find the love of Jesus.  Make room in your hearts for us, Paul said. I am overflowing with joy.  Even now, even through tears, anticipating days of darker violence, we have joy in Christ. 

I have had the experience the pastor at Emmanuel had.  Someone comes asking for the pastor.  The person appears to have some things very wrong in his life.  When the pastor responds to the unsettled individual, there is no telling what will happen.  That is the point where a voice in my head says, ‘this could get very interesting.’ 
I talked for over an hour to a suicidal man who thankfully finally allowed me to escort him into the hospital emergency room.  I have received bomb threat phone calls.  I testified in a court in trial involving gang-violence.  These personal experiences of mine by extension are the experiences of the church. I, no we, have been through these things.
I have read articles about churches being “soft targets.”  That is kind of the point when I say we need to be safe space.  “Safe” means it is emotionally and spiritually safe in the same way Jesus was a welcoming presence to the most sinful of people.  In his day, the religious institution, represented by temple and synagogue, had become corrupt.  Sinners did not find hope in these places but rather condemnation.  The religious powers that be were not safe for people whose lives were a mess.  They would come broken and ben made to feel worse. 
On the other hand, Jesus was safe for people who had major problems.  People who had really failed in their lives could come to Jesus and receive love and hope, not condemnation.  Thus, Jesus’ church must be safe for lost people including those who are hurting, unstable, unbalanced, and maybe even dangerous. 
Emmanuel Church was Jesus to Dylann Roof, a mass murderer.  They extended his grace.  Paul tells the Corinthians, “We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”  The word “vain” can mean empty.  With all the struggles the Corinthians had, Paul feared they would receive the grace but never live graced lives.  They would continue to live as pagans, to listen to competing preachers who put Paul down, and show no signs that they were filled with the Spirit of God.  They would mouth words of belief in the Gospel but it would make no difference in their lives. 
America is about to explode in racial violence.  I pray the welcome Emmanuel Church gave to Dylann Roof was not in vain.  I pray their hospitality does not come up empty.  I pray the story of churches across America is a story of God’s people standing up to hatred and violence with love, compassion, hospitality, and grace. 
At some point, anger will reach a boiling point in some African Americans.  How could it not?  That anger will bubble over into violence.  Some in white America will respond defensively or judgmentally.  Others in white America will try to insulate themselves from the struggle.  This will especially be the case in more affluent communities.  If the violence, the blowback, and the indifference and isolation become the defining narratives and only stories told and heard, we will have failed as people charged with proclaiming the gospel.  The grace of God we have received and Emmanuel Church showed will be in vain.  Grace comes up empty.  The world is fallen. The stories of violence and hate will play out.  They cannot be the only ones. 
We have a better story to tell.  Paul tells the Corinthians, “now is the acceptable time.  Today is the day of salvation” (6:2).  He doesn’t mean today is the day one decided to entrust his life to Jesus, although that is a starting point.  When Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6 that “today is the day,” he means today is the day to live into the salvation we have been given.  How do we do that?
As I discussed these matters with church friends at VBS this past week, one said in response to the Charleston shootings, “I want to do something.”  I understand how she feels. I hope others feel this way.  I suggest reading stories.  Pray until your knees wear out.  Participate in marches and community discussions.  Travel to Charleston and sit in on memorial services.  Go out of your way to develop friendships with people from backgrounds different than your own.  Try to see the world from a perspective that is different that your culture vantage point.  Acknowledge your own prejudices and ask God to help you get those biases out of your life.  Do all these things. 
If you hear this and you don’t have any emotion and you don’t find in yourself any sorrow over what happened, check your heart.  Jesus is weeping at the death of his children.  If we call ourselves Christians, then we weep when He weeps.  We grieve as deeply as He grieves.

Live into salvation.  How?
I want to do something?  What?

We as a community of faith have to tell the alternate story – the grace story.  In the middle of the coming story, we have to be the story of hope.  We do this by opening our doors and ourselves to the lost and hurting people in the world.  Yes, churches are soft targets because broken people need a soft place to land.  Hurting people need to meet Jesus in an atmosphere of love. 
Paul knew the Corinthian Church was full of heartache.  In chapter 6 verses 4-10, he recites all the difficulties he has faced as a servant of Christ.  Yet he said to them, “Our heart is wide open to you” (6:11).  And he begged them, “Make room in your hearts for us” (7:2a).  He risked being wounded again because he hoped he could help the church become the community where people meet Jesus and come to life, a life lived eternally in love and grace.
By being a safe place, a soft target, we risk everything.  Dylann Roof could walk in here.  Or someone without a gun but with a dangerous agenda could attempt to infiltrate our community.  Our commitment to being a people who welcome all leaves us open to such risks.  But we embrace that because God has given us a particular mission.  God calls us to live a story in which people of different backgrounds are brothers and sisters who embrace each other in the love of Jesus.  God calls us to stand in the midst of the violence, throw open our doors, and say to the world, “Come in, you’ll be loved here.  You’ll be valued here.  You have a place here.  In the heart of God, in God’s Kingdom, you have a home.
In coming days, it will become harder for us to tell this story and live this mission.  But we will do it no matter the cost because God enables us as God calls us.  And we will do it with great joy because God’s story is a grace story and a joy story.  The hope for the world is in the telling and living of that story.  Now is the time.
AMEN



[i] http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/10/us/mckinney-texas-pool-party-video/

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