What Mother Emanuel is Teaching Us
Sermon for the Sunday after the death of the Emanuel Nine
"Jesus died a passionate death for us so our love for Him should be just as passionate." I didn?t write that. I found that on the home page of the website for Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. "Jesus died a passionate death for us so our love for Him should be just as passionate." I don't think that has been recently added; if you had gone to their website on Wednesday you would have found that statement. The reason I have for saying that is that nothing on their website has been update since they lost nine members of their church in a single night, in a single act of violence. They've had other things on their hearts and minds.
Click on the pastor's page and you'll find a description about Clementa Pinckney all written in the present tense. Click on the announcements page and you'll find this word of welcome: "Bible Study Is there something missing in your life? Are you doing all you can to have a closer relationship with God? If you have a desire to learn more about God, then join us Wednesdays at 6pm in the lower level of the church. We look forward to seeing you!" And one of the people who joined them on Wednesday night was 21 year old Dylann Roof.
Roof wasn't there to have a closer relationship to God, he was there to start a race war and these were to be the first casualties of war. Roof started a chain reaction of grief and horror but he also started something else, something that he didn't anticipate - a chain reaction of profound love and prayer ignited by the Spirit of God. Charleston didn't become a Ferguson or a Baltimore. It became its nickname, The Holy City.
The day Roof was arraigned in court, survivors and family members used that time as an opportunity to witness to Roof about the love of God. The daughter of Ethel Lance, who was killed said, "I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you." Other survivors and family members echoed the same thing.
This has been reminiscent of the reaction of the Amish community to the shooting at Nickels Mines School in 2006. If that doesn't ring a bell, well, maybe that's because there have been so many others like it since then. Back then it was called Amish Grace; for others, just amazing grace, as they immediately offered their forgiveness. They did it because Jesus did it. It caught reporters off guard and forgiveness became more of a focus than the shootings. But long after the focus turned from Nickels Mine to Sandy Hook or to Aurora, the people of Nickels Mine continue to live out the forgiveness they learned from Jesus.
Here's one such example: Once a week, a woman drives up to an Amish house and spends an hour or more with a girl who has never really recovered from her wounds she received in the shooting. The girl sits in a wheelchair and eats through a feeding tube. But every week this woman comes and spends time with the girl and her family. That might seem like a minor act of compassion except for this ? this is Terri Roberts, the mother of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the man who shot that child. And Roberts is welcomed into that household week after week as family. By and through the grace of God, they have come together to a place of love and forgiveness.
How does that happen? I go back to what Emanuel church said, "Jesus died a passionate death for us so our love for Him should be just as passionate." The people of Nickels Mine and Emanuel, each in their own way, have lived into that passionate love. Not just on the day of disaster. It had been planted and rooted in them day after day after day through worship and prayer and, yes, even bible study, perhaps one offered on a Wednesday night. Because of his passionate love for us, Jesus died a passionate death and passionate resurrection so that we in turn could have a passionate life now and in the age to come. Their response - and our response - is passionate love, passionate, over flowing, gracious, abundant love. How does that happen? It happens when Jesus becomes part of our DNA, when God's love becomes part of our DNA. It can't be separated out.
That's what we try to do here at Holy Comforter in our own imperfect way. The mission statement of this church is very simple. It's not original. It basically just restates what some know as The Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Our mission just says: Love God, love others, serve God, serve others. If I would add anything today, I would just add the word passionately. Love God passionately. Love others passionately. Serve God passionately. Serve other passionately. Let that seep into your soul and become part of your very being. Let it be planted and rooted in you and then one day you may be surprised to find yourself saying, under the worst conditions of your life, "I forgive you, And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you." Those are the kinds of words and deeds that change the world.
Just because we follow Jesus doesn?t mean we?re spared the storms. But as we just heard in Mark?s gospel, the good news is that Jesus is in the boat with us. And it is Jesus who says, peace! Be still! Why are you afraid? Peace, peace be with you. Even in the storm. Peace be still.
On Emanuel's Facebook page someone wrote, "I'm quite sure that I've never witnessed a greater demonstration of God's love and mercy than I have seen by your members. You are a beacon of hope to the world and a great teacher of God's grace and love."
A couple of years from now you won't remember the name of the killer but you'll remember Emanuel. Their very name means God with us. Literally. God with us. This past couple of days, someone from the Emanuel posted this old hymn on their Facebook page:
"Blest be the tie that binds, our Christian hearts in love; the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Before our Father's throne, we pour our ardent prayers; our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comfort and our cares. We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear; and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear. When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain, but we shall still be joined in heart and hope to meet again." Amen.
*The story of Nickels Mine is told in the December 9, 2013 edition of the New York Daily News.