Originally I was planning to talk about Father’s day. I’ve been fortunate to have a wonderful father who has loved me as much and treated me as well as anyone ever could have, but I know and wanted to recognize that not everyone has been that fortunate. I was going to talk about how many people view their father as their hero and that whoever is your hero, whether your father or your mother, an uncle, a friend, a sister, whether a TV or movie character or someone you read about in the news, whatever kind of person is your hero, your faith in that person will not always be rewarded. Your hero, whoever it is, may do the very best they can but you cannot always have 100% faith and 100% trust in them without being let down sooner or later. You can only have that kind of faith and that kind of trust in God, described in the Bible as our Father in heaven.
That was going to be the sermon. There would have been a couple of touching stories, maybe a joke or two or three. There wouldn’t have been much of a history lesson because the history of Father’s day isn’t nearly as rich and interesting as the history of Mother’s day. Sorry, dads. It would have been a fine sermon, I’m sure, and if I am preaching on Father’s day next year then maybe it’ll all come together then.
Sometimes real life intrudes on what we have planned. One of the great theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth, recognized this when he said he advised young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspapers and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
The biggest thing in the newspapers, at least in US newspapers, this week was the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. It appears that a young man named Dylann Roof attended a Bible study at the church for about an hour and then opened fire on the other folks there. Nine people, including several pastors, were killed. Survivors report that Roof reloaded five times, and that some people tried to talk him out of reloading and shooting. Roof is reported to have said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Once you get past the initial shock, the initial horror – scratch that. I don’t know that I have gotten past the initial shock or the initial horror. As I am sitting here writing this, I keep having to stop. I keep having to think about what to say. I keep having to figure out what it is that I am really feeling. I don’t know that you ever really get past the shock and horror of something like this.
That’s probably a good thing. Too often we adjust ourselves and our standards to whatever the awful, terrible, horrible things that have happened are. When Scott Zerkle, a friend of mine from our district church youth group, was killed in an auto accident, I was heartbroken. This was back in about 1975 or 1976. Scott was a wonderful, sweet guy, and I felt like I would never get over it. Scott liked to drive fast; I don’t know if that’s what cause his accident, but I promised myself I would not drive too fast after he died. Guess what – I still drove too fast. When Bill Bosler, a Brethren pastor in Miami FL, was murdered in 1986 it hit me very hard. I went to Manchester with his daughter Jill, my parents knew him and his wife, I was stunned, I was shocked, it was incomprehensible. I haven’t thought of Scott or Bill or Jill in years, until I sat down to work on this sermon.
Pick an event from the news within your lifetime – the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, 9/11. Pick one of those things that media outlets say “changes everything”, something that left you stunned and shocked and wondering how you would ever go on. Unless you have a personal connection to the event or someone in it, when is the last time you really thought about it? When is the last time any of us really thought about the Challenger disaster, or Pearl Harbor, absent prompting from the media or a personal connection? The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed around 230,000 people in 11 countries. When’s the last time you thought of that tsunami? I don’t remember when either.
So if you’re too shocked or too horrified to articulate all your feelings about this shooting, that’s probably a good thing. In Romans 8:26 Paul writes that “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” That’s about right. I don’t know what to pray for. I can say, “O God, I pray for the people of the Emanuel church. I pray for the families of the victims. I pray for all those touched by this tragedy. I pray for Dylann Roof.” Yeah, but I pray what for them? What is it I hope or wish for them? I don’t know. I don’t know what to think, I don’t know what to pray. God’s Spirit knows, and God’s spirit intercedes for us when we are lost in the shock and overwhelmed by the horror.
By the way – praying for Dylann Roof? Are we sure? It’s easy to describe whoever does something like this as a monster, as evil, as someone who should be quickly forgotten. Already I have seen some friends on Facebook, none of you but some work friends, saying “Let’s focus on the victims. Let’s focus on how we prevent the next tragedy. Let’s not pay any more attention to Dylann Roof, because attention for his cause is what he wanted and we don’t want to give him that.”
I understand that emotion. It’s easy to say that we need to pray for our enemies. It’s hard to do sometimes, but it’s easy for a preacher to stand up here and say it. But we need to pray for Dylann Roof. And we need to think about Dylann Roof. And we need to learn more about Dylann Roof. We should not just write him off as crazy, or as evil, or as a monster. We should not forget him. We need to remember him.
Not too long after the Boston Marathon bombings, Rolling Stone magazine did a profile of the surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnev, with a picture of Tsarnev on the cover looking like a normal guy. A lot of people in Massachusetts were upset, saying that Tsarnev shouldn’t get any more attention and we should focus on the victims and the hero police and fire fighters. An attorney from Massachusetts named Marc Randazza wrote about this reaction, and I want to quote him at length. I have cleaned up his language a little.
“It makes it easier to deal with if we can look at this guy and say ‘he’s a monster.’ There, the end. No texture. No substance to our analysis. We are good. He is bad. The end.
“And along comes Rolling Stone and examines the guy in all dimensions. They use a photo of him that makes him look like he could fit in just fine as the guy in the dorm room next door. They have the audacity to dig into his life, and to tell his story to us.
“Unfortunately (or fortunately) as human beings, we all have the capacity for both good and evil, love and hate, empathy, compassion, vindictiveness…. and it makes me uncomfortable too. Tsarnev is the wretched (jerk) who attacked my home town.
“But, he is also someone’s son, brother, uncle. As evil as his ACT was, he’s a human being. Someone loved him. Someone still loves him. Someone sat him on their lap when he was a baby. Someone handed their baby to him, perhaps his brother, and he treated that baby with affection. He left a half used bottle of shampoo in the shower the last time he left his house. He went grocery shopping. He didn’t live in a lair, with bats and (stuff). He shared 99.999% of his human experience and genetics with you and me.” (randazza.wordpress.com – search for Tsarnev.)
That’s true here, too. Dylann Roof shared 99.999% of his human experience and genetics with you and me. Sometimes we look at someone who has made a mistake and is paying for it, or who is going through a hard time of some sort, and we say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We say it so often that it has become a cliché.
It’s true, though. Not just about people who have somehow screwed something up, but even about people like Dzhokar Tsarnev and Dylann Roof. There but for the grace of God go I. Dylann Roof needs your prayers because I need your prayers and because you need our prayers and vice versa.
If you visit the homepage of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, you’ll find a quote there from Sister Jean German Ortiz: “Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for Him should be as passionate.” I like that. I didn’t go over their website exhaustively, but I poked around a little and didn’t see anything about the shooting. The Pastor’s Page of course still lists the Rev. Pinkney, but it also speaks of him in the present tense, and doesn’t mention his death. He started preaching when he was 13, and became a pastor when he was 18. He was a state Senator in South Carolina and was one of the leaders in the push to require body cameras for law enforcement in that state.
Many of you have probably heard the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church referred to as Mother Emanuel. That’s because it is the oldest black Christian congregation in the south, outside of Baltimore. Within 2 years of it’s founding in 1816 the congregation had 4,000 people worshipping there, almost all blacks leaving the segregated denominations in which they had previously worshipped.
A few years later one of the church’s founders was convicted of planning a slave revolt and was executed. The church itself was burned and rebuilt, and services continued until 1834 when black churches in Charleston were outlawed. The congregation met in secret until 1865, when after the Civil War they were free to worship openly once again.
None of you probably need me to tell you the role that the church has traditionally played in the black community. Even today black churches are key institutions within the black community. Many pastors of large African-American congregations are political and civic leaders in their communities, the struggle for civil rights in the 1960’s was spearheaded by a pastor and nurtured within the black church, and in the 1960s and again in the 1990s black churches were targets of bombings and arsons and terror. Mother Emanuel was a target because of its blackness.
I used to pastor a little church in Ohio called the Lower Miami Church of the Brethren. It’s even older than Mother Emanuel – it was founded in 1805. It’s a small congregation; attendance was in the 40’s when I left there 20 years ago and I think it’s significantly less now. They voted a couple of years ago to be more open about how they are welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people and so they began flying a rainbow colored flag. In just the couple of years that they’ve been flying that flag, it’s been vandalized several times. The flag has been stolen, the pole has been broken, the flag has been re-hung upside down, the pole has been broken again – nothing like what happened in Charleston, but still an attack on a church for its public witness.
Would anybody ever attack me for my public witness to my faith? I hope not, but I find myself asking myself if my witness is even public enough that anybody would care enough to attack me. If I lived in Nigeria, just publicly being a Christian is enough to be attacked, but that’s not the case here. People at work who know that I’m a pastor seem to kind of like it. They want me to do their weddings and funerals and stuff, and I’m happy to do it. It’s a valuable ministry, but there’s no risk there. There’s no particular threat to being a mainline white Protestant Christian in the United States.
In Romans 12:2 Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Am I conformed to the pattern of this world? Are we conformed to the pattern of this world?
That’s something I need for you to pray for me about in the days ahead. That’s something I need to pray about for you, too. That’s something all of us need to pray about for our congregation as we consider our future, as we think and pray about what the renewing of this congregation’s mind might mean.
Finally, I am reminded that evil exists. We always know that intellectually, but from time to time things happen that remind us once again of the reality of evil. I’m not saying Dylann Roof is evil, but there is the capacity for evil within him, just as there is the capacity for good within him, and just as there is the capacity for good and for evil within all of us.
Evil is something we cannot legislate against. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth working for legislative solutions to issues like this. Politics is the creation and management of human communities. It is a deeply honorable calling, although some its practitioners dishonor it. I care profoundly about the work that Nate and Bryan and Katie and Jerry (four of our folks who work in public advocacy and policy) and others do. I once applied to be the director of the Washington Office, but Phil Jones beat me out. To witness to the government and to call for changes in the law is important and necessary and a valuable ministry.
It will not defeat evil, at least not on its own. It requires not merely a change in law, but a change in hearts. It requires an awakening of the Spirit within each of us. It requires an awakening of the Spirit within our families, our communities, our workplaces and our nation. It requires an awakening of the Spirit within Christians and congregations around the world. It requires an awakening of the Spirit that we have never seen, that we may not be truly ready for, that we may not know how to handle.
We cannot rely on faith in law and in government. We cannot rely on faith in law enforcement. We cannot rely on faith in ourselves. In the end, to defeat evil we can only rely on faith in Jesus, who died on the cross and rose again so that all the world could have eternal life.
God’s spirit intercedes for us when we are lost in the shock and overwhelmed by the horror. Dylann Roof needs your prayers because I need your prayers and because you need our prayers. Am I conformed to the pattern of this world? Are we conformed to the pattern of this world? To defeat evil, we can only rely on faith in Jesus. Amen.