The Charleston Church Shootings

This is the text of a sermon I gave on Sunday, June 21, 2015 at my home church of Holy Trinity in Winnipeg. I don’t usually give sermons, but I’d offered to fill in occasionally, if needed, and this happened to be the Sunday I was scheduled to speak.

I had a pretty good sermon prepared.

In the gospel appointed for today[1], Jesus is on a fishing boat, and he calms the storm. This miracle is one of the central events of Jesus’ ministry.

The reading ends with: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” This is, perhaps, the central question of the Gospel of Mark: Who is this Jesus?

My sermon tied today’s reading back to last week’s—about the mustard seed—and to next week’s—when Jesus restores Jairus’ daughter to life.

It even had this thing I’ve learned from Father Henry’s sermons, where you tie today’s gospel into something that happened to you growing up.

I didn’t grow up in Jamaica, of course, but I did grow up on an island. When I was a kid, we lived on Vancouver Island, in a little town called Comox. It was home to a small fishing fleet. So I was going to talk about how the fishermen in the boat with Jesus reminded me of the fishermen I knew growing up.

That was my plan.

But then, four days ago, as you know, there was a horrible shooting in a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

So I set aside the sermon I’d planned, and put together a few thoughts on those terrible events in Charleston.

This past Wednesday, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was holding its regular evening prayer service.

A young white man drove up to the church, went in, and joined the service. He’s been identified as Dylann Roof. It was, apparently, the first time he’d been to this church.

Everyone else at the service was black. Emmanuel AME is a big church, but the Wednesday night prayer service is small. There were about a dozen people in the congregation that night. And, by all accounts, Roof was welcomed in.

It doesn’t seem that he picked this church at random.

Emmanuel AME was founded in 1816 as a black-led church, in the heart of American slave society, 50 years before emancipation.

At the time, South Carolina and Charleston had laws prohibiting worship services by black people, except in daylight hours. They had laws prohibiting black literacy, and requiring that the majority of any church’s congregation be white. Emmanuel AME didn’t always obey those laws. On at least one occasion, 140 black church members were arrested, and eight church leaders were sentenced to fines and lashes.

In 1822, one of the church’s founders, Denmark Vesey, was accused of plotting a slave revolt. After a secret trial, Vesey and five others were executed, and the original church building was burned to the ground.

The congregation rebuilt it.

In 1834, all-black churches were outlawed in Charleston, and the Emmanuel AME congregation met in secret until the end of the Civil War.

In the 20th century, Emmanuel AME became one of the leading black churches in the United States.

In 1969, Coretta Scott King led a march to the church in support of striking hospital workers. The South Carolina National Guard met them with rifles and bayonets. There was no violence, but 900 demonstrators were arrested.

For 200 years, Emmanuel AME has been both a symbol and a centre of action, playing a prominent role in the Christian life of Charleston, and in the larger struggle for civil rights in America.

After taking part in the evening prayer service for about an hour, Dylann Roof took out a pistol, killed 9 people, and drove away.

When I first saw his photo—he’s a meek-looking 21-year-old—a verse came into my mind. It was Jesus’ words in Matthew:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

This young man was not a prophet—not even a false prophet—but he certainly came into that flock in sheep’s clothing. And he was certainly a ravenous wolf.

We know that these slaughters of innocents are not rare.

And when they happen, many of us—myself included—find two questions crowd into our minds.

The first question we ask is: Why did this happen?

And the second question we ask is: Where is God in this?

Why did this happen?

We know that racial violence—bombings, shootings—at black churches were not rare at all 50 years ago in the United States. They are rare now, but for 400 years slavery and then segregation were built on—and sustained by—violence.

We know that violence against Christians occurs today in northern Nigeria, in Iraq and in Syria.

And we know that Christians are not unique in suffering violence at the hands of their fellow human beings. The Yazidis in Iraq and the Rohinga in Myanmar are also suffering hatred, being killed for who they are and what they believe.

When we try to answer “Why?” we turn to explanations, like religious hatred, like racism, like the deep human impulse to separate the world into “us” and “them”…“our people” and “the other”…”friend”/”foe”.

In searching for answers to “Why is evil loose in the world?”, we might say “It’s the fall” or “It’s demonic possession”.

When we struggle to understand this particular slaughter in Charleston, some will say it’s the toxic legacy of American slavery. Others will say it’s because America is knee-deep in guns. Others will blame the entertainment industry for glamorizing violence.

And it may be this young man’s hatred grew out of a white supremacist subculture.

Perhaps all of these explanations are true. But they are not enough.

Police have caught Roof. He’s talking. He’ll stand trial.

But let me make a prediction: Even once we know everything we can about this shooting, even once we have all the answers to “Why?” that we can possibly have, those answers will not be enough.

The struggle to answer the “Why?” of evil is built into our souls. Struggling for this answer is necessary; it is good. This search for answers can even help us constrain evil in our world. But it will never be enough.

The answers—whether simple or complex, whether based on a few scraps of information or in the most detailed investigation imaginable—the answers to the “Why” of evil always ring hollow.

And so we turn to our second question: “Where is God in this?”

Normally, it is hard to find God in these horrible crimes.

“Why didn’t God make the gun jam? Why didn’t God make his car stall on the way to the church?”

Apparently, there were warning signs in Roof’s life in the days before the shooting. So we ask: “Why didn’t God move the people in his life to intervene before the violence even occurred?”

“If God is sovereign over the entire universe, could he not stop this horror?”

We say, as Job and Jeremiah said before us: Why do the wicked flourish, while the Godly are cut down like grass?

When violence erupts, because God does not intervene when we want him to, in the way we want him to, God’s presence usually seems invisible to us.

But, in this particular case in Charleston, we do see God’s presence.

The shooting took place Wednesday night. The police caught Roof Thursday. And on Friday, he appeared in court, where family members of the victims were given an opportunity to speak directly to him.

The daughter of victim Ethel Lance said to him, “I will never talk to her ever again, never be able to hold her again. I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.”

Myra Thompson’s husband said, “I forgive you. My family forgives you….Take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give you life to Christ. So that he can change it.”

The granddaughter of Daniel Simmons said, “Hate won’t win….My grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate. Everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love and their legacies live in love.”

I cannot say I would have the grace to speak these words if this had happened to us, here in Holy Trinity, last Wednesday night.

I would pray for the strength to say them, but I don’t know if I could have found it.

But what I do know is that God helped those family members find those words. His Holy Spirit came into them, and gave them the strength to stand in that courtroom, to confront that man, and to speak forgiveness.

Where was God is this?

He was in those words. He was in those hearts. He was visible in that courtroom in the faces of those, who—through their grief and their love—revealed God’s redeeming, miraculous, unimaginable love, present in our world.

Until I came to church this morning, I had no idea how this week’s events in Charleston tied to today’s gospel. I thought they had no connection. But then, together, we read out the scheduled Prayer for the Week:

“God our defender, storms rage about us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people form despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us from all unbelief…”

Those words were true for the people on that boat in the middle of the storm on the Sea of Galilee 2,000 years ago. They were true for the people in that courtroom in South Carolina this past Friday. And they are true for us, in this church, today.

Thanks be to God.

[1] On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark 4:35-41