A sermon for June 19th 2022
I woke up yesterday morning thinking of the people of St Stephen’s in Vestavia Hills, about the altar guild getting the church dressed for Sunday morning, and the Rector doing his damnedest to get a flight home. About the people, each and every one debating internally whether or how to show up. I wondered who will preach, and what they will say to a congregation in shock.
Of course, they will preach the Gospel. For church people, the reason we are here is because Jesus called us to him, to hear him, to know him, to listen to his charge – to love God and all people, to forgive where forgiveness seems impossible, to care for the grieving – and to rest in his embrace when we need it. He has gone to the grave for us, and he does not leave lonely those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
The man – the Gerasene man now, not that other one – the man lived among the tombs (Luke 8:26-39). As I have written elsewhere,[i] he was a local boy, a man of the city. The people knew him, knew his worst. They had tried imprisoning him with guards and shackles; they had driven him out to live alone; he lived among the tombs, among the dead, and not among the living.
The man, from accounts that I have read, who murdered three people at a potluck supper Thursday evening was known to some of his dinner companions. He was described at a press conference as an occasional attendee of the church. One police update said that he was seated as one of them, welcomed to the potluck table before he opened fire. A statement from the family of the first person to die by his hand said this:
The family of Walter Bartlett Rainey (Bartlett) wishes to thank every person who has reached out to offer prayers and a thousand different kindnesses to ease the loss we all all feel acutely today while still finding it so hard to believe. Bartlett was a husband of 61 years to Linda Foster Rainey, and we are all grateful that she was spared and that he died in her arms while she murmured words of comfort and love into his ears. We also feel a sense of peace that his last hours were spent in one of his favorite places on earth, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, a place that welcomes everyone with love. We are proud that in his last act on earth, he extended the hand of community and fellowship to a stranger, regardless of the outcome. Bart Rainey was strong in faith and secure in the love of his family and friends. He made everyone he encountered feel special. We hope you will honor him by extending your hand to those around you who are in need. We—his wife, children, and grandchildren–will miss him
My God, what love is bound up in those words.
When the demons saw Jesus, they were afraid. They begged for their lives. When Jesus showed mercy even to the demons, they proved their destructive nature by plunging the herd of swine into the sea. Did he not know it must be so? It was their nature to be evil spirits. It was, it is Jesus’ nature to be love.
When things like Thursday happen, it makes it easier to justify exclusion, an abundance of caution. With the townspeople, we are afraid, and not without reason, not without evidence. Yet I notice that Jesus does not take the former demoniac away with him, as he requests and everyone would prefer. He, Jesus, insists that they work it out among themselves, how to live together, how to be human to one another, even knowing that the evil spirits may return. “Tell them all that God has done for you,” Jesus urges him. Preach the gospel of Christ’s incarnation and healing mercy.
The man who perpetrated murder in an Episcopal Church this week has been charged with capital crimes, meaning that his prosecutors will seek the death penalty. But that is not what we do. Our church has been consistent in insisting that we deal in life, not death. That does not mean that this man should not be restrained and that a deeply wounded community does not need to know that it is safe from further harm from him. It does mean that we, that they, will need to work out how to pursue justice with mercy, life with humanity. It is a tall call.
Again, elsewhere I have written, “Everyone is welcome in the house of God, but not all behaviours are welcome. Everyone is welcome, and for the sake of safety and dignity, we set boundaries for how to be together respectfully.”[ii] We have had to navigate that line ourselves over the years and recently. “We all have fallen short of the glory of the “All Are Welcome” sign”, myself included and in particular.[iii]
This weekend, we saw, too, the anniversary of the Mother Emmanuel murders, the racist massacre of the Charleston Nine. Trouble is never far from us. Today, we celebrate Juneteenth, the complicated commemoration of good news too long delayed, and the beginning of the end of an atrocity committed against an entire image of God in God’s people. And no, I did not forget that it’s Father’s Day, too.
It is the nature of the world to be complicated, to be confused and confusing. It is the nature of God to have mercy upon those whom God has made, even in our confusion, our disobedience, our idolatry, our sin. It is the nature of certain spirits to pursue evil. It is the nature of Jesus, anyway and always, to be love.
Not for nothing do we pray today from Psalm22, which we so often associate with trouble, dereliction, and despair; that cry from the Cross. But today, we remember that God is not far from us, nor from our cousins in Alabama, and we pray that they will know the comfort of Christ’s rod and staff, to guide them and protect them in the valley of shadows:
18 Be not far away, O Lord; *you are my strength; hasten to help me.
19 Save me from the sword, *my life from the power of the dog.
21 I will declare your Name to my brethren; *in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.
[i] Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions in an Age of Violence (Upper Room Books, 2021), 62
[ii] Whom Shall I Fear?, 59
[iii] Whom Shall I Fear?, 60