This is my message the Sunday after the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas.
Sunday, July 10, 2016
Earlier this week, I was walking from my home to the church office as I often do. It’s a little over a .5 mile walk. A married couple walking their large, strong dog came toward me. I have walked past these folks and their dog hundreds of times. Sometimes we exchange smiles but we’ve never talked. On this day, as I walked past they greeted me and asked about my family. Clearly they have noticed me walking or riding bikes with my kids just as I have noticed them. I gave friendly response and then reached to pet the dog. He decided to jump and sink his teeth into my hand.
The bite hurt a little bit but did not break the skin. That dog could snap my finger if he bit hard enough. I don’t know if he was playing and just plays rough or would have really gotten me if the husband didn’t quickly move to discipline him.
As I said, it didn’t hurt much, but it surprised me in a most unpleasant way. They were friendly. I was friendly. We didn’t really know each other, but I was feeling good like maybe next time I see them we’d speak a little more. They and I were inching toward each other in hopeful friendliness and then the dog jump and bit me.
I feel like that might happen again this morning as I preach because this is an unpopular topic full of unseen snares.
We Americans are weary of the violence in our country, but I have to address what occurred in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, St. Paul Minnesota, and Dallas, Texas. We don’t want to have to face the reality of violence. Part of the reason we don’t want to face it is we don’t all agree on what causes it or what to do about it or what it means. Within this room, we have different opinions. Another reason we’d rather talk about something else is it so painful and disheartening.
However, even when we disagree about causes, and we disagree about politics of race and politics of guns; even when we disagree about all that, we can agree that it is sad when people in their 30’s die.
Some of the people who died this week are almost 1o years younger than me. I wasn’t ready to die 10 years ago. I am not ready to die now. So, we as followers of Jesus have to face what’s happening. When I say we have to, I mean we are commanded. We don’t have the option to ignore it. For those living in “white privilege,” as Christ followers, we must relinquish our privilege for the sake of love. Love is more important than our comfort. In this church family, we are not all white. We have a debt of love to be paid to our brothers and sisters, and so all of us must face the growing crisis of race and violence in America.
We hold the Bible to be authoritative. The word of God guided by the Spirit of God is how God speaks to us. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we open the Bible and our lives are shaped by what we read. In the book of Romans, a bedrock text for Christian theology, we read, “Weep with those who Weep.”
In Baton Rouge, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, died when he was shot in an altercation with the police. Can we weep with Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s 15-year-old son? Can we weep with that 15-year-old son and his other children? I know Christians, not necessarily in this church but Christians nonetheless, who will find reasons to judge him. Instead of pity, they offer contempt. Let be as blunt as possible. Swallow that kind of judgment right now. It is not to be hear here. We don’t have room for it. This room where the church gathers is to be filled with love and compassion. Romans – the word of God – tells us to weep with those who weep, to share their pain.
Psalm 102:1-2, “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let me cry to you. Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress.”
Can we weep for Philando Castile and his daughter and his fiancé Diamond Reynolds who watched as he was shot during a routine traffic stop? I have been stopped for the same violation – a taillight not working. The police did not approach me with guns drawn. They did not panic when I reached in my pocket to get my license. That’s privilege, by the way. When you’re white, a traffic stop is an annoyance. When you’re black, a traffic stop means your life is on the line depending on how you act. Can we agree that what happened in Minnesota is terribly sad and can we heed the word of the Apostle Paul and weep for this man?
Ezekiel 2:9-10 (paraphrased). “I looked and a hand was stretched out to me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe.” Lord, we lament the sorrow of the loss of Philando Castile and of Alton Sterling.
And we lament for the police officers in Dallas and for their families.
Patrick Zamarripa was a father of two children.
Brent Thompson of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Agency was newly married.
The names of the others who died are Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith. In addition, several others has gun shots wounds that were not fatal.
These officers are the heroes. We can go downtown to a concert or a movie or a big game or a protest and we can feel safe because these men and women are on the job. When I go to work, I open a Bible, my notebook, and a computer. When these officers go to work, they put on a flak jacket, holster weapons, and then get into their cars willing to face the danger so you and I can live in peace and safety.
This week it didn’t work. For a moment, let’s just align our hearts with God’s heart and grieve.
Lamentations 5:1, 15 “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look and see our disgrace. … The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning.”
I am humbled that God has called me to preach His word. I am grateful to be able to do it in this church. I love you and I love the role I get to play. Most Sundays, we gather in happiness and embrace to be together. Some have told me that Sunday morning at church is the happiest time of the week. In the warmth of the atmosphere we reach to each other in brother love, and the dog jumps up and bites! Violence rips into our serenity once again. Just a few weeks after the evil insanity in the Orlando night club, more comes along.
In addition to weeping in lament, we raise our voices in anger at injustice and death. But to whom do we direct our anger? Think about this year in our country and the world. Are we to rage against Muslims? During Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, there were terrorist attacks. Muslims were the victims the way police and black individuals were this past week. Last month in Orlando, gay people were the victims. And this past week, police officers were caught in the crosshairs. In past years, mass shootings have happened on army bases, in elementary schools, on campuses, at white churches, at African American churches, and in Wisconsin a few years ago, it was a Sikh worship gathering. Everyone is vulnerable in the path of the bullet.
It reminds of an old political cartoon, one I cut from the newspaper in college. In the cartoon, there are two skulls which sit in a field of scatter bones and bomb craters. Each skeleton has a bullet hole. One says to the other, “Man, I can’t tell if you used to be man or woman, Jew or Arab, black or white, gay or straight, old or young.” The second skeleton says back, “Man, I used to be alive.”
Jesus got angry. There is the familiar story of him toppling the money changers’ tables in the temple’s outer court. That’s an account many recognize. But also read his testy exchanges with the legalists in Jerusalem. Read of his exasperation when his disciples acted just like those legalists. He got mad. And he wept. Again, the familiar story; he wept for Lazarus –John 11:35. Oh it’s the shortest verse in the New Testament: Jesus wept! He was weeping at the sorrow of Mary and Marth, Lazarus’ sisters. But it is not the only time. The one that sticks with me is Luke 19. Jesus wept as he rode into Jerusalem because he could see just how blind and lost the people were.
In lament and in anger, we walk in our master’s footsteps. We should do this here as the body of Christ gathered together. And we should do this in our times of private, individual prayer. And we should seek out persons different from ourselves. This week, pray and weep with someone in law enforcement. Appreciate them and help them carry their emotional burdens.
Reach out to a black person if you aren’t black. Or extend yourself in love and compassionate mercy to gay person or to a Muslim. Obviously we have some of these persons present. So if you are black, Muslim, or gay, reach to someone different than you in order to embrace and pray and weep together. This isn’t easy. It could be awkward. The dog will inevitably jump and bite you. But get past that. In Romans 12, Paul does not say, “weep with those who weep if it is easy and convenient to do so.” He actually says, “Bless those who persecute you.”
Lament. Anger. Prayer. There is one more critical response to weeks like this for followers of Jesus. This one is the most important for pointing the world toward the Kingdom of our Savior God.
Followers of Jesus must tell another story than the ones that are dominating public consciousness right now. We have to make sure that the story of life in Christ gets told and told in love and compassion.
Our story involves grace, mercy, and love. Our story requires us to compassionately sit with others in their pain and not try to explain away their pain or negate their pain with logic. Pain doesn't abate with a well-reasoned argument. Jesus people are to affirm others' pain and comfort them.
Followers of Jesus must tell a hopeful story.
Followers of Jesus must hold wrongdoers accountable.
Followers of Jesus must sit with others in their pain.
Followers of Jesus must also model the kingdom of God. We do this through grace-filled collaboration in which we work with different group – black churches, Hispanic churches, community groups, and other organizations. We join and work together, and in this effort, we discover God-inspired creativity. The Holy Spirit helps us create contexts in which people can freely love across racial and ethnic divides. We open our arms to embrace people different from ourselves. And we do not balk when it gets sticky and testy. We do not quit on potential relationship if the other comes from a hostile perspective. We love past the hostility. How? Sometimes, we just stay until the other realizes that no matter how much pain he vents, we’re not leaving.
He has to unload that crushing burden. To relieve himself, he casts his hurt onto us. He does this by being aggressive, by hurling insults, and by refusing to enjoy our overtures of peace and embrace. But we don’t run away when the ‘other’ is unwelcoming. With grace and persistence, we stick with it. We care too much to bail.
Our calling is to tell and live a better story than the one the world is believing right now.
Paul concludes Romans 12 by writing, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
I don’t know about burning coals and I suggest we don’t see anyone as our enemies. I suggest, as followers of Christ, we set our chins in resolve to be agents of God’s love no matter the cost. In all the noise of the violence, the racism, the hatred, and the fear, oh the mounting fear … in that dread cacophony of chaos that is building to a frightful crescendo, I pray we will raise our voices with a competing narrative: the story of God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ.
I pray we will tell that story and we will live it. Swallow any words of judgment we might feel creeping into our throat. I have them sometimes. We all do. We all harbor our own prejudice. Swallow it. Beat it down. Stifle any impulse to defend cops or defend white people or defend the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. People defend when they feel attacked, but as followers Jesus the Holy Spirit conditions us to respond differently.
As followers of Jesus, when we are attacked, we respond with God’s love. We heap his love on people. A good place to start is in prayer, in lament, and in compassionate weeping with someone who has lost everything. No explanations. No judgments. No opinions asserted. Just sit with the one heartbroken and with the love of Christ share her burden.