On the evening of June 17, 2015, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, nine people were killed by a lone gunman, including the senior pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney. In our church this weekend, like many churches in our region, we read a liturgy dedicated to the lives of those who died in Charleston, South Carolina. We mourn the lives of our brothers and sisters. A part of our family has been hurt. We grieve.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4 ESV)
At this same time, a dear friend of ours is dying. She is a sweet woman who my wife and I have known for many years. We have shared life together. She has been unable to drive since starting chemo and subsequent radiation treatments. My wife had been one of the friends who drove her to treatments, but the treatments have stopped. The cancer is too aggressive. It has won. She is in hospice care now. We pray by her bedside. We read soothing words from Scripture. We say goodbye each time we leave her. We cry tears of mourning. Very soon she will pass and we will not enjoy her company until we walk anew with her in Heaven. Her loss is already being felt.
So it is when a member of your close circle leaves this Earth. We are family. And even though we have unshakeable hope in Jesus Christ, we will still miss her. We will no longer experience this life side-by-side. We will grieve. We will hurt. We will miss our sister. Our family will change.
And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:28-30)
As believers we enter into a new family identity. It is a huge, transcultural family bound together by our love for our Father. We are a most unlikely collection of people who, if it were not for Jesus, would never find commonality. But through Jesus we become part of what God is doing in this world through the Holy Spirit. We have a common culture — Kingdom culture. No matter what margins we have lived in prior, we enter into the fullness of His family.
God calls this Kingdom community to counter-cultural living. Those who want to live as though they were their own gods always meet the expression of our lives, modeled in the beatitudes, with hostility. Despite this risk, which is real in many parts of the world (and may be a reality soon here in America), we are compelled together to make an invitation to those who do not know God — an invitation to come home to our Father and Creator. We are compelled by love to move into hostile territory as peacemakers.
When one of us hurts, we all hurt. When one of us grieves, we all grieve. And so this past week’s tragedy in Charleston deeply impacted the family of God. Across the nation Christians are asking why a gunman would take the lives of our family — people who were peacefully honoring God.
I’ve watched in dismay as the media and the political elites try to commodify this tragedy (though I should not be surprised because they always do). Political people rush in with their faux angst, conveniently using it to illustrate their political prejudices. They call for for non-effective measures to end the violence. But I would ask them, “please leave our family alone while we mourn together.” They don’t understand that a nation of believers as diverse as anything they ever imagined is mourning our brothers and sisters together. And this same nation of believers is offering forgiveness for the deranged man who was a tool in the hands of the enemy. Rather than stoking the fires of racial hatred, the church is standing in solidarity and we are mourning our loss together. When one of us hurts, we all hurt. When one of us mourns, we all mourn.
Today, we are mourning. Today we are comforting one another. If you are not a part of our family, it is best to leave us alone and give us space to walk through our grieving in the comfort of one another. And it is worth saying, there is room at the table if you’d like to be a part of the family.