1The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27)
In the LORD I take refuge;
2for look, the wicked bend the bow, (Psalm 11)
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.5
Though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. (Psalm 23)
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; (Psalm 46)
I lift up my eyes to the hills —
from where will my help come?
2My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121)
These are the psalms of trust. They are the prayers of those who have been through the valley of the shadow of death, and come out on the far side of it. But listen carefully to them.
Whom shall I fear? of whom shall I be afraid? Evildoers. Foes. Enemies. An army encamped against me. The wicked bend the bow. My enemies sit at the table. The earth changes, the mountains shake, the waters roar and foam. These psalms of trust take very seriously the faithfulness of God. But they also take very seriously the fear we feel. They name our fears, our enemies, the armies of chaos, death. They don’t ignore them, or gloss over them, or laugh them off. They name them, acknowledge their reality, and insist that these things are true, and that these things are scary, and that these things have power in the world. They don’t sugar coat the darkness. The world is a scary place, and there are terrible things happening in it.
On Wednesday night, a group of Christians gathered for worship, Bible study, and prayer, as they do every week. As they have done every week for many years. They left the doors open, and welcomed anyone who wanted to join them. Like Christians do. Like we do here every time we gather. Like we did this morning. An hour later, 9 of them were dead. Killed by hatred that had taken root in the life of a broken young man.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (a high school track coach),
Reverend Clementa Pinckney (a graduate of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary),
Cynthia Hurd (a librarian),
Tywanza Sanders (a poet and recent business school graduate),
Myra Thompson (a pastor’s wife),
Ethel Lee Lance (a church employee),
Reverend Daniel L. Simmons (also a graduate of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary),
Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor (a mother of four),
Susie Jackson (a member of the Order of the Eastern Star).
9 beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, murdered while gathering to pray. Murdered by a young man who was a member of an ELCA Lutheran Church. As our presiding bishop wrote, “One of our own [has] shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.” 9 beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.
I know that there are some who feel that race is too political an issue to be brought up in church. I know that some, perhaps many, of us gathered here today would rather not hear about it, and certainly not in church. But the psalms argue against that. Like the lament psalms of last week, the trust psalms of this week look the world square in the eye, and insist that we do so as well. Even as we struggle to find the words in our grief, we are called by the ancient prayers of our tradition, to speak the truth about the horror in our world. To name the things we fear most. To acknowledge their reality, and insist that these things are true, and that these things are scary, and that these things have power in the world. To not sugar coat the darkness.
Dylann Roof was born and raised in the ELCA. He grew up in a congregation very much like this one. He was baptized in one of our fonts, confirmed by one of our pastors, and fed and nourished at one of our altars. He was one of our own. We cannot sugar coat it.
And we cannot ignore the issue of race any longer. If we do not talk about it, if we do not look it square in the eye, then our children go elsewhere for truth. They will ask their questions of others, and the answers that they get will not be the answers we want them to hear. If we will not allow the conversation about race, or about the myriad other issues that plague our political scene, sexism, poverty, sexuality, immigration, the things that we are afraid to talk about because they are too touchy, too political, too controversial, if we will not have the conversation about the ways that hatred seeps in, if we will not acknowledge the fears, the evildoers, the foes, the enemies, the armies encamped against us, the wicked bending the bow, then we cannot speak with any authority about the work of God in the midst of all of this. Our children will turn to others for answers. To the internet, to the ignorant and misinformed,to the hate groups that are mushrooming around our nation, to half-informed talking heads on the news parading as authorities. They will listen to hatred disguised as hope. They will open the door for evil to take root in their hearts.
Let’s face it, our children are incredibly clever little people. They are paying attention to the world around them. This week, all three of my children had questions about what they were hearing in the news. They know that the world is a wicked and scary place. If I pretend it’s all fine, and that there is nothing wrong, I teach them at least one of these things:
1) that I don’t trust them to know that the world is a hard place;
2) that I don’t trust myself to offer answers to their questions;
3) that I don’t stand in hope of anything better.
If the church is afraid to have hard conversations about hard things, if we dismiss things that we call “political” as being outside of the proper purview of the church, if we will only talk about the happy things, about the Easter and Christmas things, about the glory things then we teach our children at least one of these things:
1) that we don’t trust them to name wrong when they see it;
2) that we don’t mean it when we talk about Holy Week, about Good Friday, and about the cross;
3) that we don’t trust God to enter into every aspect of our lives and renew and restore them.
The psalms insist that there is no aspect of our lives that is beyond God’s concern – not the minutia of our daily work, not the deepest fears of our grieving hearts, and not the operations of powers and principalities in the political lives of our communities. It is all important to God, and so it had better all be important to us.
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
What are we afraid of?
Are we afraid to discover that we are not as righteous as we had hoped? (we’re not)
Are we afraid to realize that we might harbor some of the sentiments of hatred or of distaste or of distance that might be called racist? (we do)
Are we afraid that others will lash out against us for taking a stand? (they might)
Whatever it is that we’re afraid of, let me be clear:
We are baptized.
We. Are. Baptized.
We stand in the waters of our baptism. We have already confessed that we are not as righteous as we would hope. We already know that we have darkness in our hearts. We have been to the waters of baptism, and God already knows the truth about us, and we have nothing, NOTHING, to be afraid of. Whatever we fear, whatever is holding us back, whatever it is that we see in the mirror that Dylann Roof has forced us to hold up, none of it defines us.
We are baptized. We are defined by nothing more nor less than the waters of this font, where we have been named and claimed as God’s own children.
In the day of trouble,
God will give us shelter.
In the day of trouble, God has made us God’s own children, and nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
Trust. The psalms of trust are sung by those who have come through the valley of the shadow of death, and they have seen that God is trustworthy, that God is constant, that God’s steadfast love will win. And because they trust, they can sing God’s praises even as the armies are encamped against them. Even as the enemy stands among them in the sanctuary, wielding a gun and threatening to start a race war.
Because they stand grounded in their baptism, grounded in the love of God, grounded in the One who gave his life on the cross for their sakes, the families of Emanuel AME are able to speak directly to Dylann, and to offer him their forgiveness and their mercy, the same forgiveness and mercy that they had themselves received. They were able to speak God’s love into the hatred that had sown itself in Dylan’s life, hatred that could easily have overwhelmed them as well, could easily have grown into the race war that Dylann sought.
But the people of Emanuel AME refused to be subjected to the will of their foes,
refused to be subjected to false witnesses breathing violence. (Psalm 27)
Instead, they prayed with the psalmist,
11Teach me your way, O LORD;
lead me on a level path, because of my oppressors. (Psalm 27)
They placed that hatred where it belonged, with the One who has promised to carry it, they laid it at the foot of the cross, they buried that hatred in the tomb, so that they could rise up in love, so they could seek the promise of new life, so they could step forward into God’s will for them and for this world.
13This I believe—that I will see
the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! (Psalm 27)
13This I believe—that I will see, that I have seen
the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!