The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice

Saturday, June 27, 2015  

Two Churches
Rev. Ben Dueholm
June 27-28, 2015 (Proper 8B)
Messiah Lutheran Church, Wauconda

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Two churches have been on my mind these last ten days. Two churches have been so heavily on my mind that I have struggled even to pray for them.

The first is Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We all know this name now. But even before last week’s shocking crime it was a famous church in the world of African-American Christianity. One of the oldest black churches in the country, “Mother Emanuel” was once burned to the ground after several of its members were captured in planning a slave rebellion. It existed underground when black churches were illegal and survived many more years when attacks on black churches were common.

As I heard the stories of the church and its martyred members I could not help but think of the warm welcome I have received at every predominantly African-American church I’ve ever been to. Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Woodlawn, Holy Family Lutheran Church in Cabrini-Green, Trinity UCC in Auburn-Gresham—no matter where, I was never made to feel like an outsider. Never made to feel like what was happening there wouldn’t be for me. That is not always what African-American visitors to predominantly white churches experience, I am sad to say. But the welcome, the hospitality, the pleasure at receiving a visitor from a different community is something you don’t forget.

I’m from a town in Wisconsin that deliberately excluded black residents for long decades. This exclusion lasted in effect well into my own lifetime. I didn’t know anything about black churches because there were no black people in my world. I didn’t have any sense, until I experienced it myself, of what a critical role black churches have always played in preserving culture, in creating community, and in defending the humanity of people who faced a world that was in many ways hostile to them.

When I was an intern at Bethel-Imani Lutheran Church in Englewood, I always invited my friends and family to hear me preach. Dozens of them, mostly white, came over the course of the year. And everyone loved it. They might have driven down there apprehensively. They might have kept their windows rolled up tight and their doors locked. But everyone felt the joy and hope of that community. Everyone felt welcome. It’s an amazing thing, an inspiring thing: to have had to struggle so hard to keep yourself and your faith and your community alive, and yet to be so open to people from outside.

Bible study was a big part of our life at Bethel-Imani. We gathered on Sunday mornings and Thursday nights, ten to fifteen of us. Intimate gatherings, serious gatherings, but always open to me. And if any other young white guy had shown up for it, he’d have been welcomed just as warmly.

It was just such a Bible study that Dylann Roof came to last week. I have read that he later told police that he almost didn’t go through with his crime because the people at Emanuel were so nice. I think I knew exactly what he meant. They were so different than what his hate-diseased heart had led him to expect.

Emanuel AME is having to live through a horror that may have faded but that never really went away. It has always been a part of the DNA of the African-American Church. How to grieve, how to be strong, how to keep the faith. How, amazingly, to extend forgiveness. How to persevere. How to celebrate despite everything. It’s a staggering task. I have struggled to pray for them adequately. But I admire them. I grieve with them. I love them.

The second church that has been on my mind is St. Paul Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina. This is the church where Dylann Roof was baptized and confirmed, where he worshiped with his family. Where his family must turn for strength and healing in an extraordinarily trying time.

It’s a Lutheran church, an ELCA church like ours. I can only assume that they try as hard as we do to cultivate love for all their neighbors, to call forth the best in each worshiper and to name and condemn and forgive what is worst. I assume they love and cherish their youth as much as we do. And I assume their youth are as much a mystery to them as ours are to us.

They must know, like we know, that people are complicated. They know that faithful people can say and do thoughtless and hurtful things. Their Facebook friends, like ours, doubtless justify violence against black people and maybe even fantasize about it. They must know, as we know, what it means to pretend you didn’t hear someone say what they clearly said. They know, as we know, that you have to look, sometimes very hard, for the good in someone. They know, as we do, that you have to work very hard to push the margin of decency outward even a little bit.

But they had no way to see this coming. They had no way to expect that a place of Word and Sacrament, of prayer and fellowship, where Christ’s body is broken and his blood shed for the sake of the whole world could nurture such an act. They now must struggle, too. Their struggle is very different from Emanuel’s struggle, but it is parallel. They must try to keep the faith, to understand, to know themselves. I have struggled to pray for them. But I grieve for them, too. I love them.

Two churches—one black, one white. One victimized beyond imagining, one home to the perpetrator. Yet both the Church of Jesus Christ.

Imagine what these readings would sound like today in the pews at Mother Emanuel. Imagine what they would sound like at St. Paul’s:

“The LORD is my portion, I will trust in him.”

“It is sit with one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope) to give one’s cheek to the smiter and be filled with insults.”

“He will have compassion according to his steadfast love.”

How would that sound to the community of the victims? How would it sound to the community of the perpetrator?

A woman with a hemorrhage touches Jesus, breaking a taboo, crossing a line. Jesus raises a dead child. How must those stories sound for the flock who looks for God in the midst of what has been done to them? How do these stories sound to the flock whose own sheep did this?

That is the church of Jesus Christ. That is the body of Christ in the world. It contains both the one who is violated and the one who violates. It contains the one whose mouth has been pushed down into the dust and the one who must bend down to the dust in humility and repentance. It contains opposite sorrows. It contains opposite consolations. It contains those who must fight every day to preserve their humanity and it contains those who learn to their shock that they have not achieved their humanity while their brothers and sisters are not yet equal. It contains those who may with unimaginable strength, divine strength forgive a horrible and resonant evil. And it contains those who must be given the strength to ask forgiveness. It contains those who have bled for too long, who have never stopped bleeding. It contains those who learn too late that their hearts must bleed too. All of them, all of us grasping at the hem of Jesus’ cloak, all needing healing, all fearful that there will be no overcoming what has been done to us, or what we have done to others. All needing to hear, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

It was Jesus’s great prayer that we should all be one—one flock, one shepherd, one bread, one body, one sorrow, one consolation, one Lord of all. It was Jesus prayer that we would reach beyond ourselves, really beyond ourselves to the sister and brother we do not know. Whose story we have not heard. Whose pain we do not know. Whose experiences we do not understand. That we would, by God’s grace, see ourselves in each other.

Two churches and their people, separated by a cruel and criminal history that has not yet ended. Yet Jesus is greater than the history that rolled right over his own body, greater than the cruelty that pierced his own flesh, greater than his own welcome turned to violence, greater than confusion and shock. Greater than fear. Greater than locked doors. Greater than rolled-up windows. Greater than hate. Greater than death.

Yesterday I watched the funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME as it was broadcast from Charleston. You got the sense that the broadcasters were wondering why it was taking so long--the songs, the cousins and colleagues remembering, the bishops and pastors thronging the stage. Our own Bishop Elizabeth Eaton was there--fittingly, as two of the victims were graduates of the Lutheran seminary in South Carolina and the perpetrator was Lutheran. The governor and the president were there too.

They sang an old Gospel song—The Old Ship of Zion. It’s a song about faith, a song about hope. But especially it’s a song about the church and all those people there to be part of the remembrance.

The old ship of Zion  
the old ship of Zion  
the old ship of Zion
Get on board, get on board.

It has landed many a thousand,
it has landed many a thousand,
it has landed many a thousand
Get on board, get on board.

King Jesus is the captain,
King Jesus is the captain,
King Jesus is the captain
Get on board, get on board.

And that’s the church. That’s the Savior. Grieving people come to him, and a hemorrhaging woman comes to him. The woman is repelled by her own fear and the mourners are pushed away by the crowds. But Jesus welcomes them. Jesus accepts them. And Jesus says one thing to them, to us, and to his whole church: “Do not fear; only believe.”


posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:27 PM
Comments: Post a Comment