Racism, Sexuality, Sin, and Grace

It’s never really been a secret that we live in a messed up, broken, constantly-changing world: just look at this week. And we know God is out there! We tell ourselves that every week, or even every day. But slowly, God’s abiding presence goes unnoticed, pushed away and covered by everything else happening in life. Where is God when a gunman massacres people in a church? Where is God when anger and hate get in the way of love? It can feel like God isn’t present at all.

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Fifth Sunday after Pentecost 5B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Lamentations 3:22-33
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

It’s hard to know where to begin, isn’t it.

Because I’ve been on vacation, it’s been three weeks since I stood in this pulpit. And in that time, we’ve been rocked by monumental happenings.

A week and  a half ago, I was sitting on the porch of one of the cabins at Camp Luther near Conneaut, OH. Reception out there is difficult to get, so getting enough signal to access the Internet was a real challenge. Still, I had seen a few headlines mentioning a shooting in Charleston, SC., but, unfortunately, in our current societal climate, it didn’t shock or surprise me.

One of the other clergy present at the camp came up to me and said, “Did you hear about what happened in South Carolina?”

“Yes, a little… I saw there was a shooting, right?”

“Nine people,” he said. “Nine people were shot in an historical black church in Charleston yesterday. I thought you should know.”

You see, that week, while I was on vacation at Camp Luther with my family, I was also serving as chaplain for the week. That meant that I was in charge of worship, but also for providing pastoral care if necessary to campers. This is not what I needed on my vacation.

“There’s more,”he said, which I couldn’t’ believe, but I listened anyway. “The shooter? He was one of us. He was a member of an ELCA congregation.”

Yes, you heard that right. Dylan Roof, a man who proudly waved a Confederate battle flag, a flag flown by armies explicitly fighting for the right to treat Africans and their descendants as less-than-human, a man who lamented the end of white-ruled apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa, a man who walked into a church and spent an hour in Bible study and prayer with 12 other people before standing up, pulling out a gun, and killing 9 of them: this man attended worship at an ELCA congregation.

I don’t know why I was as shocked by that as I was. The ELCA is in no way perfect. But we tend to live in a perpetual state of denial, that these sorts of things only happen “out there”; it couldn’t ever happen here, could it? Dylan Roof proved that it could. That not even we are immune to hate and violence, even though we are a church that preaches grace and mercy and forgiveness. Even we fall short.

It is for this reason that part of our service this morning comes from a Service of Repentance and Mourning, a service that our Presiding Bishop Rev. Elizabeth Eaton and the worship staff of our Churchwide unit put together just this week.

If that had been all that happened in the past ten days, that would have been enough to rock the nation. That was enough of an upheaval. But there was more in store.

On Friday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, ruled that the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, under its equal-protection clause, guaranteed the right of same-sex couples to legally marry. It ruled that the same amendment to the United States Constitution prevented states from enacting laws or constitutional amendments of their own to ban same-sex marriages and required states to recognize the same-sex marriage licenses issued by other states. An intense legal battle that arguably began to take shape in 2003 ended on Friday.

For some, Friday was a day of unqualified celebration. It marked the end of at least one leg of a lifelong struggle for equality in marriage under the eyes of the law. It meant that their relationships would no longer be valid or invalid depending on which state they lived in. It meant that they as human beings, including their sexual orientation, were finally accepted fully and completely. It was a great, momentous day.

For others, Friday was a day of unqualified disaster. It marked the end of at least one leg of a lifelong struggle for the upholding of their religious values. It meant that relationships contrary to their beliefs would now be held on the same high level as their relationships. It meant that human beings who strayed from their particular religious virtues regarding sexual orientation would be allowed to continue straying. It was a terrible, momentous day.

Both of these events, in different ways, have sent seismic waves through our society and through our church. Things are changing. And changes this big are always accompanied by a companion. That companion’s name is fear.

In the wake of the Charleston shooting, a nationwide call to address racial tensions took the country by storm. The massacre was compared to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, an act of terror in Birmingham, AL, committed by white supremacists that killed four young girls and galvanized the Civil Rights movement. Within days, calls to remove the Confederate battle flag, a symbol appropriated by white supremacist groups representing the ideals of the Confederacy, were answered, and in many public places across the southern United States the flag was removed. Fearing that the symbol would continue to promote racism, retailers began pulling anything and everything related to or depicting the Confederate battle flag, as if in an attempt to erase that horrible bit of our national history.

On the other hand, supporters of the public display of the flag rattled the sabers to defend their symbol. Fearing the loss of their heritage, they fought back, claiming that the flag stood for nothing more than “Southern Heritage” and the pride that those who live in the south have for their land. Fearing the sins of the past, they claimed that the flag did not stand for the racism that was the bedrock principle of the Confederacy, and shouldn’t be associated with it.

There are also those who feared that this attack in a church is but the start of places of faith being targeted. In a sense, this may be true. At least two, maybe three predominately black churches in Georgia and the Carolinas have suffered fires in the last week that are being investigated as arsons. In addition, some people have called for guns to not only be allowed, but welcomed in churches and other houses of worship, and some are advocating that pastors be armed during worship and ready to defend worshipers if someone comes in to harm them. I will never be one of those pastors.

Tensions are still high, with both sides (and all those in between) afraid of what will happen next.

The same can be said of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday. Those who joyfully accept the ruling are afraid that this is only the beginning—that there is still a long fight ahead. That now that the question of same-sex marriage has, it seems, been settled, people will find other ways to discriminate against them. For example, 18 states do not have anti-discrimination laws for employment, meaning a person can be fired without consequence based on their sexual orientation. There are a host of other barriers set against those with a non-heterosexual orientation, such as in the realms of adoption and donating blood.

Those who reject the ruling are afraid that this is only the beginning—that there is still a long fight ahead. That now they will be forced to acknowledge same-sex marriage, or worse, participate. Some vendors have been forced to go against their principles, they claim. Will church pastors be next? Will they be forced to participate? Is this another sign that our country is losing sight of its morals and ethics?

We live in a culture of fear, and frankly, we’re bad at dealing with it. We are. It seems like our response to fear in our society is to batten down the hatches. We withdraw into ourselves and trust no one. We arm ourselves, figuratively and literally, against any opposition. And then we wait.

Maybe if we wait long enough, our fear will just go away on its own. Maybe, someone will try to come and attack us, and when we repel the attack, we will be safe. Maybe the fear will never go away.

I wish I could simply pull up some words from the Bible that would make all of our fear, especially around monumental change, go away. Our reading from Lamentations this morning is a perfect word of comfort.

Written describing the events after the Babylonian exile, Lamentations is a window into the minds and emotions of the Jewish people of the time. The exile, being forced out of their homeland and their capital city destroyed, was a tragically monumental and world-shattering event for the people of Judah. The book of Lamentations, then, is an attempt to make sense of that tragedy and loss and put into words the trauma that afflicted the Jewish people. It includes such hopeful words as this:

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

And later:
For the LORD will not reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflicted
or grieve anyone.

Such powerful words of comfort gave hope to the exiles that their suffering was not in vain—that this life-altering change wasn’t the end of the world. Whether or not those words actually DID give comfort, I don’t know. But they were meant to. They were written to.

Will they offer us comfort? If I went back and read the entire first lesson again this morning, would it make a difference? Somehow, I doubt it. So I won’t.

But what about our Gospel reading? Jesus Christ is, perhaps—no, I take that back—Jesus Christ is absolutely at the heart of the single greatest world-shattering change in the history of the universe. God incarnate, word become flesh, God literally walking among us. In his life, Jesus lived and walked among a people living in perpetual fear and anxiety about their future under the Roman Empire. He attracted enormous crowds, performed amazing miracles. He rocked the boat like storm waves on the Great Lakes. So intrusive was he to the established order of life that he was executed for it.

He brought others back to life, and wherever he went, people would be desperate to touch him in the hope that they would be healed. And Jesus responds—he heals the woman with the hemorrhage in our story this morning. He raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead. And when he himself was executed, just to mess with everything everyone ever knew about life, he goes and rises from the dead. Nothing, absolutely nothing was out of the realm of possibility with Jesus Christ—he changed everything.

And yet, somehow, I doubt when we read this story this morning, that there was a general feeling of awe and wonder at the amazing works of Jesus. We are too afraid to hear it today. We are too anxious.

This is what fear does. It shuts us down, it locks us out. It makes us numb and immune. I am as numb and immune as anybody. Remember, when I first heard about the Charleston massacre, it barely fazed me. That’s who I’ve become—that’s who we’ve become. I am incapable of dealing with these things on my own. And so, I have to turn it over to God. Which is why, even on this day of repentance and mourning, that I am grateful, for little Bo.

When Brad and Kayla and I set a date for Bo’s baptism, we didn’t know that all of this stuff was going to happen in these past week and a half. And as these events unfolded, and in response to the Charleston massacre our Presiding Bishop called for a day of repentance and mourning, many of my colleagues scrambled to adjust our services this morning, wondering how they would accommodate any special events happening today. I did, too.

But I am glad, so very glad, that today, we get to see our God at work in a way we don’t often get to witness—through the gift of Holy Baptism.

It’s never really been a secret that we live in a messed up, broken, constantly-changing world: just look at this week. And we know God is out there! We tell ourselves that every week, or even every day. But slowly, God’s abiding presence goes unnoticed, pushed away and covered by everything else happening in life. Where is God when a gunman massacres people in a church? Where is God when anger and hate get in the way of love? It can feel like God isn’t present at all.

But not today.

Today, we get to see the grace of God poured out like a waterfall, a rushing river spilling over rocks. Today, we acknowledge the faith in God that little Bo has, that intimate trust he has in his creator, and God’s faith in him. We get to celebrate with his parents, and his family, and his friends, as he is marked a child of God and as the Holy Spirit descends upon him, just as happened to Jesus at his baptism.

Today, we get to see the grace of God in full force, piercing through the thick clouds and darkness that surround us today. We get to see, thanks to God’s grace.

A prominent speaker at the funeral of one of the victims of the Charleston massacre said it this way:

“According to Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.

“As manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace—as a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.

“He’s given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find our best selves. We may not have earned this grace with our rancor and complacency and short-sightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace.”

Baptism is the clearest example of that grace, that overflowing love of God that both makes us see where we’ve fallen short, and then fills us with the power of God to go out and do something about it. To get away from fear and stand in the love of God, to speak boldly with the words given by the Holy Spirit, to declare our freedom in Christ from the captivity of sin that binds our world in abject terror. It is an act of God that will not be stopped by ignorance, age, or the ability to form a single word, let alone our own failings such as our racism and our hatred for those we perceive as different.

And so, in the midst of our pain and our suffering and our anger and our hurt, I give thanks for Bo, because today, he reminds me that we, sinful people, are forgiven through no effort of our own. Through Bo, I see the grace and power of God at work even in our darkest days. In Bo, when I fail to find God on my own, when like today the words from the Bible I have heard a hundred times bring no comfort, I see God taking the initiative and sending grace anyway.

We have a long way to go. Racism is not dead, and is in fact alive and well; yes, even here. We will be fighting over issues related to sexual orientation and equality for many years to come. I am sure that the fights will be passionate, and they will be destructive. Things will change, and they will change in way we can’t yet imagine. But as we are about to see through little Bo, that will not stop God from delivering grace, and sending the Holy Spirit to work wonders in the world through our faith and trust in God.

And Bo? He gets it. He knows the love God has for him, and he knows God will always be there for him. May we be reminded also that God loves, and God forgives, us. Thanks be to God for the grace that is sent through no merit or cause of our own doing, grace that wakes us up, grace that forgives, and grace that brings us home.

Featured Image: “Baptismal Font” by Cliff is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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