Last Sunday I rather boldly revealed the trajectory of today’s sermon. Normally, I wouldn’t announce ahead a topic, but I’ve thought a lot about and been deeply pained by the tragedy in Charleston and what’s taking place in our nation. I thought I might know something to say by today. My confidence lasted until last Monday. Writing a sermon is a lot like playing golf. You tee it up, swing, and only God knows where it’s going. I wish I were smart enough to give you the answer as to what’s wrong in our nation these days, and what to do. But I’m not that smart. I’ll point us to a story, though, that might shed a little light.
Early in Mark’s gospel Jesus shows great power and promise. He heals, restores life, tosses demons, stills a storm. His parables and teachings dazzle the masses. But then he returns to his hometown. Headline: “Local Carpenter to Preach at Synagogue.” And that day, he packs the place, starts out great, but soon his kith and kin start to grumble: “Where did he get that stuff – those powers? He’s just Mary’s boy, a mere carpenter. We know where’s come from. Who does he think he is?” Now where I grew up, that’s not a question. It means someone thinks they’re better than their raisin’. They’re too big for their britches.
Jesus, I’m sure understands, but he is so baffled by their unbelief, his miraculous powers leave him. Is unbelief a force powerful enough to thwart God’s coming Kingdom? Is their power greater than Jesus’ powers?
I don’t mean to scare you or suggest we humans have any capacity to finally trump God. God is fully in charge – in control. Our unbelief or half-hearted belief can limit God’s work, though. God freely offers a new way of life here on earth. We fully accept or reject God’s offer. We have the power to hinder or help God’s will. Ultimately, we lack power to change God’s disposition towards us. Surely God gets peeved with us. But in the end, God’s power to love and save us in spite of ourselves wins. Nothing we do turns God away. We can turn from him.
Someone once asked me, “Why with all the preaching and teaching about God’s love can church people act so mean and snarky to each other? Don’t we get it?” “I guess not,” I said. Just because we hear Jesus’ words doesn’t mean we pay attention or let them soak in a way that they redirect and transform us. It has been said that people may forget what you say, or what you do, but they will never forget how you make them feel. Do you ever think about your impact on others – by how you treat them, or what you say to them?
In light of the Charleston tragedy, debate over the confederate flag, burning black churches in the south, what can be said? It’s easy to say we need to end white supremacy, racism and have stricter gun laws. Taking stands against evil, removing offensive symbols, prodding us to do better, are good, but not enough. What needs change is not out there, but in here – in hearts and souls. And we cannot pull this off by ourselves – or even with the help of each other.
I honestly don’t know what to do to dismantle racism, genderism, classism, bigotry, and hatred. I grew up in the thick of it – race, religion, gender. My church taught me well – that those “-isms” run counter to Jesus. I had learned that God’s love casts out fear. I knew some mighty fear-filled and threatened people, who were not at peace in themselves, so they couldn’t be at peace with others. Some of them were even church members. I can say that, since I get Jesus. Mounting a soapbox, calling out evil – preaching against something, helps me feel better. But I also have come to realize that helps me deny my own sin, by pointing out others’ sin. I can deny fears, my dis-ease, those times I wish I could delete words I’ve unkindly said, or how I made someone feel. That’s how I hinder Jesus’ power to heal, love, teach, to restore life and lives. Thank God, God doesn’t turn from us.
On this Independence Day weekend, we need a Supernatural Emancipation Proclamation. Laws and resolutions don’t change our hearts. We are still enslaved – by hatred, greed, fears, our past conditioning, our blindness and deafness by which only God’s power of love, the Gospel, can set us free. We need solutions far wider and greater than calling out racists, bigots and white supremacists, enemies, and the phobia of the week.
I believe we’ve seen that power at work. It brought Emanuel AME church people together that Wednesday night. They actually believe Jesus can form their lives. They drove from all over Charleston that night, and other nights to study scripture, reason and pray together. That power goes missing in many lives. That same power led them to welcome the stranger, invite him into the grace and love of God. That power was poured out in forgiveness families offered to him – when he used his power to kill their loved ones. Such gospel power was evident in the public, televised worship and eulogies when resurrection, love, joy and hope erupted; and darkness, hate and evil got exposed as false and empty. That’s what it looks like when people hear, receive and welcome Jesus. Jesus comes alive in us. We’re turned upside down and changed. It’s visible, tangible, and personal and communal power. It’s the power of divine love and it sets us free.
Maybe we limit the power of God’s radical love and grace by not taking Jesus seriously. Maybe we need to confess our sin and turn again to be embraced in the Gospel of God. That’s the only power I know that can free us from racism, hatred, fear and all “-isms,” that divide and destroy the life God offers us in Christ Jesus. And all of us are infected, to one degree or another.
Jesus could do no deed of power that day, except – maybe healing a cold or chapped lips that day. He was amazed at their unbelief. If you leave here more alive and filled with hope, chances are you’ve encountered the risen Lord. You’ve been resurrected all over again – practicing for a day yet to come. And that’s amazing – amazing grace. You can’t keep it to yourself. You leave here, and we go with God. My friends, that’s the only answer I know and trust. We may be independent, but I doubt many, if any of us, are truly free.