An exhortation from the clergy of St. Andrew’s Church, Mount Pleasant; Park Circle, North Charleston; Goose Creek; and City Church, Charleston – preached on all campuses this morning:
“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16.33)
On Sept 15, 1963 a bomb was detonated inside an Alabama church killing four little girls. One bystander was reported to have cried out, “My God, you’re not even safe in church!” And though the words were uttered over fifty years ago, the anguished cry of that particular bystander could have, and very likely was uttered in the hearts of many a man, woman, and child as we collectively came to terms with the terror done in downtown Charleston. “My God,” you might have said, “you’re not even safe in church.” And you’re right. Terrible, senseless evil can happen even in church. But dear friends, we must admit, some churches are less safe than others.
A church was bombed in Birmingham on Sept 15, 1963. But it wasn’t just any church that was bombed. It was a black church that was bombed. Segregated churches seem like something that should be a legacy of the past but sadly they are not. Here in North America Christian people of all races have failed to fully realize the words of the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the Ephesian Christians:
Christ himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility . . . that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God through the cross thereby killing the hostility.
Through some spiritual defect, and deep indwelling sin, our sad racial divisions are every bit as evident this Sunday morning as they were five decades ago. Because we have failed to come together, we cannot simply say a Christian church was terrorized last Wednesday night, but a black Christian church. And this is surely cause for prayer, confession, and repentance before God our and neighbor.
There is something else we must bring up, if we are to be honest before God and before our neighbor. Fifty years ago – within the living memory of many of us gathered this morning – black people were terrorized throughout this country. This was particularly true in the South. Many of us would like to believe that such bigoted violence is some relic of the past, but surely the events of the past year have shown this not to be the case. And in case anyone remains unconvinced, it wasn’t five decades ago, but five days ago, that a young white man wandered into a black church because, and I quote, he “wanted to shoot black people.”
Of the victims of the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Martin Luther King Jr. simply said: “They died between the sacred walls of the church of God. And they were discussing the eternal meaning of love.” Surely we could say the same of our neighbors who were murdered last Wednesday night at Emanuel AME Church. And we could say the same of us, that we are here between the sacred walls of the church of God, discussing the eternal meaning of love.
And yet there is at least one difference. We are alive. Not only are we alive, but as a predominantly white church, we have (most likely) never known the terror of predominantly black churches such as Johnson Grove Baptist TN, or Mt. Zion AME SC, or Little Mt. Zion Church in AL, or Cypress Grove Baptist Church in LA, or St. Paul CME in MS, and countless other predominantly black churches which were victims of violent, racist attacks within the past fifteen years. “My God,” you might say, “you’re not even safe in church.” And you’re right. Terrible, senseless evil can happen even in church. But friends, some churches are less safe than others.
Here we are, discussing as King so eloquently put it the “eternal meaning of love,” and we must ask: What does love require of us? Or to put it more pointedly, what debt of love do we owe to our blood bought brothers and sisters in Christ and neighbors made in God’s own image who are vulnerable and still subject to much violence and systemic oppression? What do we owe our “less safe” brothers and sisters? To put it quite simply, friends, what will you and I do about this? I would ask each and every member of St. Andrew’s, in Goose Creek, North Charleston, City Church, and Mount Pleasant to bring this very question before the Lord.
And while we wait for His guidance there are nevertheless things that may be done.
We will pray.
We will certainly do this. We will pray today for our city, for our churches, and especially for those of us most vulnerable. And I would ask you to be mindful of opportunities to pray with the broader Christian community in Charleston – and I respectfully ask for your humble and reverent participation in prayer vigils as they are announced and shared on social media.
We will repent.
Surely each of us has things that we must repent of in regards to such matters. Some must repent of racism. Some must repent of cowardice. Some must repent of ambivalence, but each of us must repent. And I humbly ask each of you to come before the Lord and do business with Him that you may receive grace and healing.
We will help.
We will begin helping today by giving. The immediate request before the Charleston community is for financial assistance for the families of those killed. Our cash offering this morning will be donated in full to the Mother Emmanuel Hope fund, a fund established to offer support to the families victimized by this tragic evil. If you were not prepared this morning to give we will accept your offerings through the week and we will pass them on to the Mother Emmanuel Hope Fund.
Beyond this, we will seek the guidance of our African American brothers and sisters in our own congregations, as well as African American church leadership in our community. We will seek their guidance on how they believe we may best stand with them in the coming days in response to this evil. And I believe it is important that we learn to stand with this community on other issues where African Americans are unfairly made vulnerable and victimized by unjust structures. I humbly ask for your prayers, your wisdom, your ideas, and your support as we seek to understand how best to do this and when the time comes, I humbly ask for your support and action.
Finally, and most importantly, we will lift up Him who died for us, Jesus Christ the Son of God. The Apostle Paul reminds us that it is only the Gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. We will continue to clearly present the Gospel in our churches, setting forth the power of God that delivers human beings from the bondage of sin, hate and hostility and reconciles them back to God and their neighbors. This Gospel, the power of God, has been at work not only changing the eternal fabric of heaven but also the temporal fabric of earth.
Unthinkable progress has been made towards racial reconciliation in the past half century done in no small part to the power of the Gospel at work in the Christian church. The national media reporting on the citizens of Charleston’s response reflect the fruit of the Gospel on display in our city’s life. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial entitled, “A Bow to Charleston.” A Philadelphia paper’s headline simply read, “The Grace Card.” We have come far and we have made progress. Last Wednesday is surely a devastating setback. But setbacks, even devastating ones, ought not deter God’s people. As Dr. King also said:
There is something at the very center of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may reign for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the Easter drums.
Brothers and Sisters in the Lord, I ask you to take heart, to have faith, to muster up your courage, to preach the Gospel, to lend a hand, and do not be discouraged. In this world, we will certainly have tribulation. But Christ has overcome the world. And with this hope, we boldly prepare to serve Him in these days in which He has called us.