Sermon, Year B, Proper 8, June 28, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2015 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 Lamentations 3:22-33 Mark 5:21-43
Our God is a God of life and of love.
Our lives are often lived as well in the interruptions. Those moments that we don’t expect. Such as these two people who come to Jesus, interrupting him. We get diseases or sicknesses, have emergencies, get sidetracked, or whatever it is that might surprise us in life.
But we can trust in God and trust in Jesus. Like the last phrase in the hymn that we just sang, “Trusting how he made her live.” Don’t know how, but trust that he did it. That’s what God is about. Life, living, grace. The God of miracles. God of holy Spirit that comes. We read on Pentecost about the Holy Spirit coming upon the people, drawing us together, and sends us in new directions doing the unusual.
And I would say that the last couple of weeks have been very unusual weeks in our country and around the world. This has been a couple of weeks of Spirit miracles, or grace, of Jesus bringing new life in unexpected ways. Ways that show that God is with us.
God is with us.
For me, I go back a week and a half ago to the shootings in Charleston at the church down there. I was at MADD with the kids that week, and we got the news the following morning as we woke up. When we heard the news of the senseless slaughter, we were devastated. It was heartbreaking to hear the news. More violence. It just doesn’t ever seem to end. More violence tearing our hearts in half.
This violence driven by blind hate. Racism. Who knows what else. It is difficult to know the heart of the man who did this. It is an act of evil perpetrated by a young man, a man who I would like to think - and probably we’d all like to think - had to have been raised to know better than to think that this was appropriate, or good, or a holy, or helpful thing to do. I’d like to think that he knew better. That he was raised to know better than that. But maybe not. The racism might have been part of his upbringing, as it is for far too many.
I’d like to think that he was a young man who was known and loved by his family and his friends. That at least he had some community of love around him. Who knows.
And I would like to think that he was surrounded by grace through all of his life, even if he didn’t see it. He wasn’t able to notice it. I’d like to think that he was loved by his teachers - they tend to be a people of unconditional love for their students no matter what they may be like. And he was, we know, a man who was shown love by the very church community that he gunned down. He was welcomed into that Bible study. Welcomed into that church. Made to feel welcome by people that, we find out later, he hated simply because of their race. Because of the color of their skin.
He was surrounded by grace and maybe he never saw it.
This is a man who, as President Obama said in his eulogy, that this was a man who did not understand grace even though it was being shown to him, and he living in the midst of it. The very community that lived out grace around him, Emanuel AME Church, was the target of his graceless evil.
I think of Jesus setting the table, setting the bread and wine at the last supper with his friends, and inviting Judas to that meal as well. Inviting Judas as a friend and as someone whom Jesus loved. Except the good people of Emanuel AME Church did not know they had a Judas. They did not know to expect that their lives were going to be stolen by the person they invited into their home.
We will never know, not truly, his heart. Never really know what drove him or inspired him. There may be words said, he might even say them, but we can never truly know what is on a person’s heart or mind.
We will also never know the pain of those who love him. Those who had to hear the news of what he did, who have to live with what their son, cousin, friend did. And maybe never know if anyone does love him.
But I will say this: and I am confident of it. This may be a challenging and difficult thing to hear, but even if he is not loved by anyone, he is certainly known and loved by God. In this church, we proclaim God’s love for all people, so let us not forget that truth. Of that I am sure, and let us not forget that truth. Known and loved by God.
Not to excuse anything he did, or put a stamp of approval of it, or to say anything other than that it was an act of evil. But remember that he is one of God’s sons.
As were all his innocent victims. They, too, sons and daughters of God, loved and known by God.
Jesus said to pray for your enemies. Pray for those who do harm to you.
And Jesus also said to pray and care for all who hurt, pray for all who cry out for justice, pray for all who demand justice, who demand dignity, who demand to be treated as equals in the eyes of the law and the Lord. Pray for all who lament. Pray for all who suffer. Pray for them, seek to relieve their oppression, their suffering, their indignity.
The people of Emanuel represent a people who have long cried and lamented to God, and lamented to their government, to their communities.
I find interesting that the church is called Emanuel, which you may remember from Epiphany that it means “God is with us.” Imagine naming your church Emanuel, “God is with us”. That is a proclamation of faith! Think of an oppressed people, the people in this church. They had their church burned down many years ago because of racial hate. They had their members shot because of racial hate. And over the years between the Civil War and now, their church has been shot at numerous times, the people have been harassed and oppressed and told they can’t be free. They lived through the Jim Crow years, denied access to restaurants, libraries, and schools that the white kids could go to. They spent all these years in lament and struggling, from the Civil War through Civil Rights to today - and yet they retained the audacity to call their church “God with us”. Even in all the suffering, they still are proclaiming that God is with us. We trust that God is here. We trust that God is present. And we trust this vision of God’s realm of justice and freedom. God only knows how much that church has prayed in lament over the years. That’s a church that knows Christian hope and faith. That’s a church to learn from. A good lesson for all who follow Jesus, not to give up that hope.
I imagine over the years they have prayed, as many have prayed (and not even just that church, but anyone who suffers from illness, sickness, failing bodies, death of a child, oppression, slavery, invasion, violence…), prayers of lament wondering if God is there. I can hear the people saying, “Things aren’t any good for us, God. We’re being mistreated. My life isn’t going the way it is supposed to be going. Life is in chaos. There is violence all over. Guns are everywhere, murders on the streets, we’re being racially harassed. We are being made a mockery, God. It sure seems like you are never here to help us. Never here to protect us. Never hear to bring us to freedom. But we’re still going to call ourselves “God with us” because we have hope.”
That’s a powerful witness. We will still ourselves “God is with us” because he have hope.
Think of hope of the woman who touched Jesus’ hem in the Gospel lesson. A woman who knew that by “the rules” of her day she should not touch a man and make him unclean, a woman lamenting her health and her condition. She spent all of her money tryuing to find some healing and hasn’t found it. She is lamenting her condition in life, and she still goes ahead and touches Jesus’ cloak in hope and trust in grace - just to touch his cloak! - and found healing in that act of faith.
Or the prayer of lament we read from Lamentations. There are other places in that book that have some very heartfelt lamentations. These are a people feeling impatience with God and speaking it. Through it they remind themselves that the steadfast love of the Lord never ends. But also pray to live in the suffering and waiting. They are in a time of having to wait. Their country has been invaded and come to an end, many sent into exile. Wondering “When, God, are you going to make things right for us?” So they can say that it is good for one to wait quietly. It is good to bear the yoke in youth. It is good to sit in alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it. It is good to put one’s mouth in the dust. Because the Lord will not reject forever. For the Lord does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.
We also read David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. Even though Saul had been trying to kill David for years. Saul was the first king of Israel. David laments his death, and laments the death of his best friend Jonathan.
There is great power in lament. To speak to God that which has wounded our hearts, wounded our souls.
To unload all the garbage on God, and to give it to God. I think that we don’t lament enough. That could be a good spiritual discipline for us to get into. Some are good at it and do it. The African American church. Churches of the poor and oppressed can be good at lamenting. But I think our middle class midwestern comfortable white lives make it difficult to lament, or cause us to bristle at the idea of lamenting. Makes us feel down or depressed, and we don’t want that. Even though I know we’re already down and depressed - so let’s be honest about it! Let’s offer it to God. God, there is too much violence! There is too much poverty! We are waiting for your realm, make it happen already!!
Speak it in prayer to God instead of pretending we don’t feel that way.
The Psalms are filled with lament! Lamentations filled with it, other places in the Bible are prayers of lament, of people rising up to ask, “When, God, when? When are things going to get better? When will my life improve? When will our lives improve? When will this community be brought to a place of justice and freedom?!”
But, I don’t know, seems we are afraid of it. Advertise you’re having a service of lament, and watch the attendance drop 90%.
And so instead of embracing the spiritual exercise and disciple of lamenting - an honest prayerful response of pain to the God of love - we just sit around and piss and moan about stuff not being as good a it used to be, or should be, or that everyone else is wrong and blah blah blah. And there’s a big difference between complaining with your friends and lamenting to God. Lamenting respects the sovereignty of God and invites God into the conversation and the solution, trusting “God with us”, Emanuel. The other denies God’s goodness, God’s hope, God’s love, and God’s presence, because God isn’t brought into it.
To lament is to say “You aren’t doing enough, God, but we trust that you can and we are pleading with you to do it. Do it, God.” It’s an admission that God is the one to rely one. Complaining we do with our peers. Lamenting we do with or to the people who are in power, or the God who is in power.
But those on the bottom - our African American brothers and sisters, our LGBT brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters who have suffered too long from lack of healthcare, those suffering from climate change, they have all known about lamenting, crying for justice, demanding to be treated as equals, as full human beings with full human rights.
I started this sermon off by saying that these past weeks have been crazy. By God, miracles of miracles, when all seemed so dark after the shootings in Charleston, when I was losing hope, the rainbow arc of the universe lit up this week and continued its trajectory toward justice.
Within days of the shooting, people were demanding the Confederate flag be taken down from the capitol building of South Carolina. That it be taken down from other government places.
That’s not a new request. People have been protesting that flag, and other Confederate symbols, for decades, even generations. But no one in power really listened, no one heard the laments. Like Pharaoh in Moses’ time, their hearts were hardened.
And then a miracle… a lot of those hardened hearts suddenly softened. A dialogue that has refused to happen for 150 years began, and, in some places, saw some results almost immediately! The governor of SC asked that the flag be taken down. The governor of Virginia called for all license plates with the flag on them be returned, and that no more plates will be made with the flag on it. Other states have taken their flags down. The state of Mississippi, which has the battle flag in the corner of their state flag, has started the conversation of needing to redesign their flag to remove it. WalMart, Amazon, eBay, Target ,and other stores have stopped carrying any merchandise with Confederate symbols on it.
Something I thought I’d never see in my lifetime finally happened and found some resolution so quickly. The conversation has started. That’s a moment of grace. The Spirit at work.
This is an amazing, amazing step forward. I am still blown away by it. We have a long, long way to go to find a resolution and a change of our hardened hearts in race matters… but this is significant.
Then we had the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, so that the basic human right of access to healthcare continues to be granted to our poor brothers and sisters. Another lament heard. Another act of grace. A prayer answered.
The Pope came out with an encyclical calling the climate change crisis as a moral issue, not just a political or scientific issue, but a moral issue because it affects the poor. It affects all of us, really, because it affects the earth, but it has a proportional effect on the poor. That’s pretty big news. We’ve been saying that in the UCC for decades, but the Pope has a far bigger worldwide audience than we’ll ever have.
And Friday, our Supreme Court offered another move toward a more just society with their ruling that our Constitution guarantees that gay couples also have a right to be legally married. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see that in my lifetime. Three or four years ago that wasn’t even a possibility.
Grace has abounded this week. That’s the power of lament. The power of grace. And even in the last months, the dialogue about a $15 minimum wage has suddenly gained traction, and attraction, across the whole nation from the politicians to the people.
Grace has abounded this week. Not everywhere. There is still violence. There were still mass killings, things blowing up. We are not perfect yet. We still have homeless people. Our street ministry has been extremely busy, giving hundreds of hours every month listening and responding to the laments of the poor. And it needs your support, by the way. Seriously lacking in funds, gas cards, food cards.
We still have people who can’t afford their health insurance. Still have a huge workforce that is woefully underpaid and underserved with sick days, or sick leave to take care of a child or parents, or maternal and paternal leave… Still have violence, wars, racism, homophobia. And while we mourned and grieved the past ten days over the nine people murdered in Charleston, 300 or so other Americans were murdered with guns in this country. At least three African churches have been burned down this week, one each in SC, NC, and GA.
We have a long way to go, but this was a week of grace.
Many prayers were answered. Many laments were relieved with a response of justice and love.
A week of laments being answered by acts of grace.
And maybe the greatest act of grace we’ve seen in the last week and a half is when the families of the murdered victims were in the court talking to the man that killed their family members. All of them responded to him with grace. The grace that he didn’t know, that he perhaps had not experienced before. Maybe he didn’t understand their act, but I hope he did. They responded with grace by offering words of forgiveness. Not words of hate, punishment, or retribution. They confronted evil with the love of grace. They understand the power of God’s grace.
Those blind to their racism have had their eyes opened by grace to see the racism and oppression that is in their symbols, and are willing to let them go.
Those in the LGBT community who have been lost to the full dignity and rights that should be inherent for all citizens have found their way to freedom.
The planet that has cried out, lamented in fear, is finding shield and protection in the growing voices of the faithful who want to protect and preserve it (and thereby protect ourselves).
This has been a week of grace.
One of the verses of Amazing Grace says:
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come,
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.
There is a balm in Gilead, and it is called grace. God’s love. God’s unmerited, unearned love.
The faithful who have gone before us, and the faithful who are around us, have taught us about grace, about the power of trusting in that grace, trusting in God, trusting in God’s grace and love, and they have shown us the power of living in that grace.
I pray that we all follow their way.
They help to give me confidence to say that the Good News of Jesus Christ is Emanuel: GOD IS WITH US.