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It’s been a week of tragedy and heartbreak. Any time there is senseless violence—whether because of ideology, religion, race, or some combination; we have a lot of questions. Especially since Wednesday’s violence in Charleston, we wonder how someone could do something like that. How could someone sit in a Bible Study for an hour, and then open fire? We might wonder why, if God created us in different colors, God didn’t build in a kind of tolerance and recognition of one another as brothers and sisters, all children of one creator. And speaking of God–Where, exactly was God in that church, among faithful people who loved God? Why did God let them perish?
It’s a good and obvious question that again comes up in our Gospel as we hear about the disciples who are with Jesus and there’s a storm. “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?” But in that case, it seems obvious that Jesus did care. He woke up and did a miracle. The wind calmed. The sea settled. Jesus cared. God cared, and in that situation the miracle saved the day and restored faith—at least for that afternoon.
The Old Testament character Job must have asked a similar question. “God, do you not care that I’m perishing?” If you recall the story of Job, you remember that he loses everything. He loses family, work, possessions, and finally, even his health begins to suffer. His so-called “friends” sound like anything-but as they give advice and talk, talk, talk, and talk at him. Surely Job has brought all of this upon himself in some way, they say. Surely he’s offended God in some way. Today we might call this “blaming the victim,” and while it’s as old as Job’s friends it’s also as recent as the commentators and politicians in our day.
What’s great about Job, and one reason why we have his story as a part of sacred scripture, is that Job never caves in to the moralistic, simplistic thinking of his friends. Instead, Job goes right to the source. Job prays and talks and even argues a little with God. Our first scripture reading today is part of God’s answer to Job. It’s beautiful and poetic, but the spoken answer of God is not especially satisfying. It’s as though Job asks, “Why is there evil in the world?” And God says, “Creation IS.” But when Job asks “Why is there evil in the world that’s happening to me?” God responds by drawing closer. It’s like some of the more important conversations we might have: the content is less important than the proximity, the “being with.” God is present with Job. In storms and in good weather. In sickness and in health. In life and in death and in new life again.
What Job’s friends may have been trying to do, but did clumsily, is what Paul is trying to do with the church in Corinth in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. The Christians there had all sorts of problems – with each other and with Paul. But Paul cautions them not to lose hope—remember all we’ve been through, and the faith that has brought us this far. More specifically, Paul says, “As we work together with Christ, [don’t] accept the grace of God in vain.” Another translation puts it, “Don’t squander …[the] marvelous life God has given us.”
Here, I think Paul hits on something that was not only a problem for first century Christianity, but also a huge problem for twenty-first century Christianity. Grace has come to us. It comes at our baptism or before. Grace perhaps comes again at other times in life, but we forget. We get distracted. We are overcome by the storms of life so that all we see is the rising water and the crashing waves, the lightening and the thunder. We say to ourselves, “Sure, God calmed that storm, but what about this one.” Sure, God was with me when I narrowly escaped a car accident. God was with me on the other side of the successful surgery. But what about the complicated issue of THIS day? What about tomorrow?
When we “accept the grace of God in vain” we still think of ourselves as Christians, but it just doesn’t mean much. We forget the power of Christ. And that’s what grace is—not a soft, wispy glow that comes over us when we’re good or when God thinks we’re special.
Grace is power! It’s the power of right over wrong. Grace is the power to love in the face of hatred. Grace is the power of life over death. Grace is the presence of Christ.
When take that in vain, we’ve lost our voice, we’ve lost our power, we’ve lost ourselves.
The news this week told about a young man named Joseph Meek who was a friend of the killer Dylan Roof. Mr. Meek remembers when Roof yelled a racial slur out the window of the car. He noticed as Roof began to spin out of control. But he says he “didn’t take him seriously.” After Roof bought himself a gun, Meek got concerned and took the gun for a while, but eventually put it back. After the shooting, Meek said to the reporter, “I do feel a little guilty because I could have let someone know.”
You know what? He is “a little guilty.” We all are a “little guilty” and more than a little guilty when we allow people and systems and institutions and laws to go without comment. We are guilty when we laugh at the racial slur, or pass along the homophobic joke, or fail to (as the signs remind us) “say something when we see something.” Many of us live in what we think is educated, liberal Northwest Washington, but even here, more likely than not, if a person with brown skin enters a room, the white folks will assume the dark person is an employee. Even here, there are jokes, and innuendo about those “outside”, and there is silence about the privileges so many of us take for granted on the “inside.” How often do we keep silent so as not to appear too politically correct, or whiney, to keep things smooth among the group at work, to get along with the neighbor, to keep peace at the holiday table? We cannot squander, hide, or take in vain God’s tremendous and powerful grace. Because it’s not OUR grace—it’s God’s intention that all would benefit from Christ’s grace and love and liberation from sin and evil. But that won’t happen if we’re timid, overly polite, or cautious in the name of “minding our own business.”
We MUST NOT take God’s grace in vain. As children of the living God, we have died to sin in the sacrament of baptism and we have been raised to new life in Christ. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. And that MEANS something. That MEANS everything.
Last week’s rampage was a white kid against blacks. But it could have just as easily been someone in this church when we hold a same-wedding. Or it could be our cathedral when we consecrate a female bishop. Or on, and on, and on.
All week I’ve been thinking about the famous quotation of Martin Niemöller (1892-1984). He was a Protestant pastor who spoke out about Adolf Hitler and spent seven years in a concentration camp. Niemöller was one of the first to articulate the complicity in the Holocaust and the need for repentance. He said
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
To take God’s grace in vain is to be silent or to be complicit when there is racism, sexism, or anything that belittles a child of God. To live out the full grace of God is stand up, to speak out, to name injustice, and to lead with love. To live out of grace and to show the world is what the Emanuel AME Church continues to do and what the families of the shooting victims did in court on Friday. The families told the accused shooter that they were praying that he be forgiven, and that he should pray for forgiveness, too. Ms. Alana Simmons, granddaughter of one of the victims, said this to the killer, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof — everyone’s plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win,” she said.
In answer to the question that comes out of scripture and out of our lives, God does not let us perish. The love of God surrounds us, the presence of Christ moves us forward, and the fire of the Holy Spirit helps us go with God’s energy of love and healing. The storms of life will come. We may feel as singled out and persecuted like Job. But God’s grace is never in vain. God’s grace enables us to love, and love, and love even more.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit.