But I’m not sure if I want God heal. I think—I hope that Christ will break our hearts even more. Because, maybe, by now, the initial shock has worn away. Maybe your mind has already turned to other things—maybe we will just shake our heads, and like the characters in a Russian novel, throw up our hands and say, “What’s to be done?” Jon Stewart made some remarks a couple nights ago—with a largely jokeless monologue about the Charleston murders. He said something along the lines of “I got nothing…I am pretty sure we are going to talk about how horrible this is, and do nothing about it.” He made a lot of good points—how we spend so much effort trying to search and destroy terrorists overseas, but can’t seem to address terrorism here at home. He spoke of the deep irony of a young man who told his victims that they were taking over and had to go, while he lived in a State that flies a Confederate flag, the symbol of black oppression and slavery, in a town whose roads are named after Confederate generals, Stewart asked, how could Dylann Roof think this—that he was in danger, that he had to murder nine people in a church, studying Scripture, to protect anyone? If Facebook is any indication, many people I know agreed with him.
When we talk about sin, we are talking about more than things we have done or left undone. We also say that we are in bondage to sin—this means we are slaves to it, that we cannot escape sin. We do well to believe that to be a human being is to be a sinner: captive to decaying and destroying forces of evil. Sin is both action and a state of existence. Classically, sin was described as vitiation of the good: that is, the decay of the good rather than its opposite. Dylann Roof, believed he was acting for good, although it is clear his deeds were evil. And yet we must also know that each of us here, all who have come, are similarly in chains. And if we wish to be free of chains, we must expect struggle and sacrifice. But freedom comes for us, and we shall be free.
Struggle and suffering and sacrifice are true signs of grace. We hear Paul say today, “I urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” Here Paul is pleading with the Corinthians, who continued to sin despite the clear commands of God, despite his continue letters, despite his own preaching and sacrifice. The Corinthians maintained divisions among the rich and the poor, they were prejudiced—in short, they were like we are. And Paul says, that he has remained a servant of God to them, and he gives them these proofs: “great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…We are treated as impostors and yet are true; as unknown and yet we are well known; as dying and see— we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” He bears the scars of life—and he offers the love of God. Do not accept the grace of God in vain, he says—don’t receive grace and stay as you are. God’s grace will transform you—he wants the Corinthians hearts to break with love, so they can be open. Listen to how the pericope ends: “We have spoken frankly to you..our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return…open wide your hearts also.” Isn’t this the message—isn’t this the thing that needs to be changed—isn’t the problem that our hearts are too closed, too afraid, too dismayed, too full of despair? Isn't the problem that our hearts are closed to see humanity in people with different skin--that our hearts are closed to see the humanity in a killer? Open wide your hearts! May Christ break open our hearts and change us.
One of my best friends is a pastor in the farthest suburb of Chicago, but he has spent much of his ministry in the African-American church. When he learned of the shootings he posted on Facebook about how as a white man, he was always made to feel welcome in an African-American church, that he always felt safe there, that he was always invited to the table. Can the white American church, he asked, say the same thing? There was no restriction in affection for him—but in the white church? How will Christ Jesus break those hearts wide open? Perhaps by the witness of the saints at Mother Immanuel: at Dylann Roof’s arraignment, one by one they stood and told him how much he had taken from them—and then they said, “I forgive you. May God have mercy on you.” Today the doors of the church stand open, and strangers still will find welcome, and anyone who enters that door will encounter Word of God today. This is true Christian witness, born of lifetimes of suffering—every generation of Mother Immanuel has learned to love with broken hearts. It is time for all of us to do ask God teach us how to do that, too. Death will not win—it never has won, and it never will.
The same morning we learned of the shooting in Charleston, we also received a magnificent gift from the Pope, who released a teaching called “Laudate Si”, or Praise be to You, based on a St. Francis of Assisi poem. The Pope pulls no punches in his analysis He says, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” The Pope does not hesitate to diagnose the degradation of the environment as an effort by human beings to take God’s place in ruling creation and lift up new gods of our design that celebrate our bondage to sin and give license to sinful deeds: “economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical deterioration are closely linked.” I would add that it should not surprise us that those politicians that refuse to call this a racially motivated killing also refuse to acknowledge the extent of climate change and human responsibility for it: environmental degradation and human degradation come from the same human impulse, to degrade reality in order to exploit it.
And so, the Pope says, quoting Patriarch Bartholomew, “As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.” In other words, when Christ breaks our hearts, we feel how every part of creation, every human being, is “created in the heart of God.” When Christ breaks our hearts, we see everyone as wonderful and special in their own way, as brothers and sisters—sinners, yes, but loved and created deep in the heart of God.
The response to these things, the only Christian response, is respond to evil with good, to insist that the good creator of all things will not abandon us, but will make good come from evil. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” Martin Luther King, Jr said. “Only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that.” And we should never, ever give up on goodness, nor on God. We can never give up that things can change--never, ever. Just 60 years ago, do you think Dylann Roof would be facing the same penalty he faces now? Has no progress been made at all? We become better not by sitting back and doing nothing, but by continuing in faith, not fear. We still have the vote; we still have a voice. We still have the Gospel, the church, and now we are strengthened by the witness of the martyrs of Mother Immanuel. Our response to the tragedies of murder and the degradation of our planet to enrich the few is the same: to ask Lord Jesus to break our hearts more and more, until we are filled so completely with God’s love, no evil will overcome us as we reach out with God in blessings. The grace of God will not be in vain. Christ is with us. Amen.