Note: Anthony Brown, my cousin’s husband, died with another coworker at Walmart on Tuesday, 30 July. On Saturday, 3 August, 29 people died, 20 in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and 9 in Dayton, Ohio. The sermon text comes from Romans 8.
15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,
39 nor 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.
In the week of July 3, 2016, 7 widely publicized deaths nearly drove me to despair. One victim lived as a convicted felon with a rap sheet that extended back over a decade. One served a cafeteria in a school; he had memorized the names and food allergies of over 500 children. Five served Dallas as law officers, killed as the nation tried to process the killing of a man pulled over for a broken tail light.
I stood before my congregation the following Sunday and said, “We sit on the precipice of social collapse. If you’re here today, your response to this sermon will determine the world your children and grandchildren will inherit.”
Three years later, we gather in this sanctuary after a bloody week in which 52 innocent people died violent deaths.
I hate to say it, but events of last week have proved me right. As I grieved Anthony’s death, I did what so many academics have done: I started researching a hunch. My research revealed that since that week in 2016, the United States has experienced more incidents of multiple homicide, and lost more victims, that in the 3 years preceding it.
It gets worse. We haven’t finished the year yet.
People have reacted in different ways to the violence that now defines normality. Don’t try to tell me we haven’t accepted it. Also, don’t try to tell me anything about America’s “Christian nation” status. Christian nations don’t accept the level of violence that now infests our society.
Don’t give me anything about “we’ve forgotten God.” I lost a pastorate for revealing the community’s history of violence stretching back over a century. Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette once wrote of Christianity, “its ethical ideals are so revolutionary and, if carried out in full, would involve so drastic a reorganization of the lives of individuals and of society that it is not surprising that in the less than twenty centuries in which it has been in existence it has not won the world to complete conformity to its pattern” (A History of the Expansion of Christianity). Our society was never Christian in the first place, and I’ll gladly pay for the coffee at the Stable or the Mustang if you want to argue with me about it.
However, in spite of the temptation to do so, we cannot treat these deaths as mere statistics, yet more people who died because the American Church refuses to live up to Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. We will not allow the untimely deaths of good people to serve as only another news story.
Because, believe me, Anthony, my cousin’s husband, was a good man.
In this past bloody week, a good man — a husband, father, son, and friend — did what he had done for years. He went to work to provide for his family and serve a company that had been good to him. Others simply went shopping. Others went out for an enjoyable evening.
This brings me back to the text I read earlier. St. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in 57 A.D. This congregation knew violence. The Jew they worshiped had died an unjust death only 2 decades before. Rome built an empire on pride, greed, and violence.
Had that Jew stayed dead, we wouldn’t have this letter, this passage of comfort to us. However, 3 days after his death at the behest of the Jewish priesthood and at the hands of the Romans, Jesus rose from the dead.
The world hasn’t been the same since.
The Church built on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection now encompasses the world, with believers in every nation. For the first time in history, broken, sinful, depraved humanity could find hope: Hope in redemption from sin through the blood of Christ, hope in love because Jesus revealed through His life and death a God of love that sought to save a world mired by sin.
First, note we have received a “spirit of adoption as sons,” not a “spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.” We now face the temptation to fear others. We face the worse temptation to hate others. Violent death has stained our lives. However, Christians, we live as adopted children of Almighty God, not as slaves to any political party or any race-based code or the fear that pervades our society. We can say, “Abba, Father” to the Creator of the universe!
Secondly, St. Paul knew we would suffer in life. He wrote, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Yes, we suffer. Right now, I’m suffering. Thank God that St. Paul points ahead to the “glory” that will make our sufferings fade into oblivion.
Right now, some really don’t know what to pray. Some may feel as if we can’t say anything to God right now. If that’s the case, St. Paul wrote, “we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
Some of us are too angry — too bloody mad — to pray right now. If that describes anyone, I recommend reading Psalms 3 and 137. Then, read Psalms 37 and 73. Trust me, you’ll feel a lot better after you do.
This brings us to St. Paul’s last lesson: The love of God guarantees He will bring us through this. Somehow, in a way I cannot foresee, God will make these tragedies work for good. We may not live to see it, but a time will come when this will work for good.
Now that we’ve seen St. Paul’s lessons, it’s time for me to leave you with a few of my own.
What I say will carry no weight with those who do not believe in Jesus. To you, I can say only, “Christ is risen; repent, and believe the gospel.” However, to the Christians here, to those born again by the Holy Spirit and adopted into the Church through the waters of baptism, I speak with the authority of one called to serve the Church as pastor and proclaimer of the gospel. I can expect nothing of the unbelievers, but as long as I stand on the Scriptures, I can expect obedience from the people of God.
Here’s my first lesson. If we want a peaceful society, we must build it ourselves. Don’t look to the political process to build it. I hate to burst your bubble, but neither political party in America has a monopoly on virtue. One party ignores the lives of the unborn in spite of the lessons of Psalm 139 and Jesus’ command, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). The other party has done nothing to end abortion, and right now, it completely ignores the warnings of the Old Testament to care for the poor, the oppressed, and the immigrant. Instead, it has proved it will do anything and consort with anyone to preserve its power. Our God does not wear read or blue. He has godly people in both parties.
No, we must build our society. We will do so one meeting at a time, one relationship at a time, one worship service at a time. I wonder if anyone ever thought to invite the perpetrators of these heinous crimes to church to hear the life-saving gospel. Would you have done so?
Here’s my second lesson. Stop living in fear! Children of God, we claim the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, a love that nothing can take from us or rip away from us. If a television program makes you afraid, turn it off and go meet your neighbor. For those of you who place your safety in a political philosophy or a weapon, hear the word of God: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7). I despise the belief that only fear will accomplish something in our nation. Christian, living in fear is in direct contradiction to living in the gospel. We serve the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end (Revelation 21:6), the one who conquered death and promises an eternity free of sin, death, suffering, and pain. Don’t wait until you die to start living in freedom from fear!
This brings me to my last lesson. The lesson sounds simple but takes trust in God: Live in hope. Live in hope we will see the Holy Spirit, through us, will spread the good news of love in our community. Live in hope that that those we love into the Church will join us in the communion of saints that will live forever in a new heaven and a new earth, a creation untrained by sin.
I will close with a quote from C.S. Lewis. “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses” (“The Weight of Glory”). Go forth and not only love your neighbors; look for neighbors to love, especially those different from you. Live in hope that God can use you to build a just and peaceful society. Then, in the name of Jesus, go forth from here and start building: one relationship at a time, one worship service at a time, one person at a time.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.