In my office, I have a list of sermon topics for the next few weeks. Topics that have been prayed over and approached with a hope of seeking what God desires to say to us for that specific Sunday. That list has sermon topics and passages through the end of the summer.
Sometimes, though, plans need to change. Today is one of those Sundays. If all things were the same, we would continue our series on the “Life of David” by looking at the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel 17. We would have marveled at David’s ability to defeat Goliath and, perhaps, say something about how God enables us to overcome the overwhelming challenges we face.
That would have been a nice message, but it would not be appropriate for this Sunday. We’ll get back to David next week, but for now I think it is important for us to reflect upon the events of this past week.
On Wednesday evening, nine people were killed at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., following a Bible study. Among the dead were pastors, parents, and people who had their whole life before them. The accused shooter, Dylan Roof, has been arrested. In the days since the shooting stories have come out that suggest this was a targeted event because of their ethnicity.
We join, along with the entire church, our hearts in prayer for Mother Emanuel AME as they worship today. We pray for the congregation as they mourn. We pray for the victims’ families who are grieving today. We pray for the city as they try to understand why this happened. We pray, as well, for Roof that he may seek repentance and forgiveness. As well, we pray for the shooter’s family that they may be comforted.
As we pray for them we wonder how this could happen. We have questions. We wonder, as well, how this continues to happen. If we take all of the events of this year – from rioting, to shootings, and many other senseless acts – we get the picture that this has been a violent year filled with tensions. I pray this trend does not continue.
Wednesday’s violence allows us to reflect on what our nation is experiencing. We are divided. It is heartbreaking to see that we are not one. We have divided ourselves based upon various division lines, whether it be our ethnicities, our educational status, our political views, our faith, or even where we live. The polarization that exists in our nation even affects the church. As I look at the church, I see a body of Christ that is more divided today that at any point in my 35 years of life. All of this breaks my heart.
With all of this, the one question I keep thinking about is how do we respond? How do we respond to all of the violence and all of the heartbreak that is around us? How do we respond to the division in our nation? It is easy to look for ways to respond by seeking the answer to our questions from the media, politicians, or others. The way we respond to the divisions in our nation cannot come from any other source than our faith in Christ. Our response must be centered on the love of God that breaks through all divisions and promotes a unity that is unlike anything we could ever imagine.
To experience this kind of love and unity, we have to recognize that these divisions, especially the violence, are nothing new. The violence is nothing new. As shocking as the events on Wednesday were to the nation, sadly, it was not unfamiliar to our African-American brother and sisters who have too often experienced violence in the church.
Some of these acts of violence have occurred in the last 50 years. In September 1963, four young girls were killed when a bomb went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. In June 1974, Alberta King, the mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed while sitting at the organ of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Throughout the 1990s, many churches in the south were set on fire.
What happened Sunday is another example of a long string of violence committed against others simply because of the color of their skin. It is unacceptable. It was and is evil. There is no other word that we can use to describe what took place Wednesday and in each of these other atrocious acts. Evil visited us on Wednesday and it took the lives of nine people who had welcomed Roof as a visitor and a child of God.
We cannot continue like this. We cannot claim to be a nation united by a common liberty, and experience such violence committed against others because of their skin color. We cannot continue to allow the divisions that seek to separate us to exist regardless of what the division lines may be. This cannot be what defines us as a people.
We need a better way. We need Jesus.
As followers of Christ, we know Jesus offers us a better way to live beyond the divisions that exist. The way of Christ is the pathway of seeing the worth and value in all people and finding the places of commonality. This way is about extending the gift of love that was freely given to us to all people.
It is a way that expressed through Paul’s words in Galatians 3:26-29. Paul writes that we are called to break down the divisions around us by recognizing that our faith in Christ has changed the game. Through our faith in Christ, we are welcomed into a new relationship with the Lord that is based on love, hope, and peace.
This relationship is one we enter into at our baptism. Through baptism, we are welcomed into this relationship and are able to clothe ourselves in the very things of Christ. Christ is love. Christ is grace. Christ is peace. Christ is joy. Each of these characteristics become the characteristics that we seek to be defined by when we identify ourselves by Christ’s love. It becomes our new identity. As followers of Christ, we want to be people who are loving, who are filled with grace, and who are examples of peace in all times.
Because of our identity in Christ, we are called to be unifiers and not dividers. We are to look upon the world in the same way Christ looks at the world. In Christ there are no divisions. In Christ’s love the divisions of our world are broken down and replaced by a unity of love. It is a unity that sees that each of us who claim Christ’s love are joined together in a mutuality of connection. We are called to share that connection and love with all people. It is not that these divisions are not present. It is that the divisions are no longer relevant to us.
So, if we were to take Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 and apply them today it would look something like this: In Christ, there is no longer black or white, no longer Hispanic or white, or any other ethnic division. There is no longer Republican or Democrat. There is no longer rich or poor. There is no longer gay or straight. There is only Christ’s love and we are all one in Christ.
When we take on the identity of Christ, when we seek to be known by his grace and love, this is the way Christ calls us to live in the church and the world. The divisions of society cannot be what defines us. We have to seek a unity that finds the common ground with all people that begins with our love of Christ that is shared with us and with each other.
The way we do this is by following Christ’s example and live with a desire to be in relationship with people from all sectors of society. Keep in mind, we follow a Savior who sat with people whom society said were unwelcomed at the table and called them friend. We are called to do the same. We are called to love like Christ people who do not look like us, people who may not share our values, people who vote opposite of us, or people who just get under our skin. Love must be the way we respond to the divisions in our world.
Our nation needs people who do not promote divisions, but, instead, who seek to find common ground and share love with one another. We have an opportunity, as ambassadors of Christ’s love, to present a better way than living with divisions by the example of our love. We can share Jesus with the world by simply loving one another.
It is a witness that we all have a responsibility to live into. The best way we can respond to the tragedy of Wednesday evening is by beginning the work of building bridges of unity through our love here in our community. The church must be the beacon of light into whatever divisions and separations that exist in our community, and provide a better way of seeking unity, common ground, and love through Christ.
We cannot wait for someone else to do the work of unity building and expressing love. The work is too important to wait for someone else to love all people before we begin to participate in the work. We are called to love all people today without questions or hesitations. As Thomas Merton said, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” We just need to love one another with no questions asked. We need to accept one another. Unity in Christ begins with love and is shared through our acceptance of one another.
I will be honest, this idea of seeking unity through Christ’s love has taken on a bigger meaning for me in recent years. As a parent, I pray that Noah and, children in his generation, will love all people unconditionally. I do not want him, or our children, to be like the people I grew up with who saw racism as a badge of honor. I want our children to love without divisions.
I want that for our church, too. The church today, and I’m thinking about the entire body of Christ, is broken by our divisions. We are not unified together. We must reclaim our important work of being like Jesus and being a place where all are invited to experience the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must reclaim the call of Christ to love unconditionally. By this, our motto of “open doors” must no longer be a simply a marketing slogan, but a way of life for the church.
We must be people who love freely and seek to be one in Christ and one with each other. Communion allows us to begin this great work. In this table, we are reminded that Christ loves us no matter who we are or what we’ve done in our lives. It is a meal that is shared with all people. It is a meal where we are inspired to leave being transformed to be people who are “one in Christ and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”
My friends, I’ve long grown tired of the divisions that exist in our nation, our community, and our world. My desperate prayer is that we will no longer be defined by our divisions, but we will seek a better way. That better way is available to all of us through the love of Christ that is freely given to us all and freely shared with all.
May we be people who do not live by divisions, but live by the incredible love of Christ and share that love with all people.