(Editor's Note: Preaching Today asked Pastor Dan Meyer to tell use the reason he decided to speak about the shootings that took place in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas during the week of July 10th, 2016.)
On Wednesday night, I finished my sermon for the coming weekend—a meditation on the meaning of communion, based on Luke 22.
By Thursday morning, however, the national news had wrecked my heart and forced me to start rethinking the focus of the weekend ahead. I'd devoted so much time to the sermon already prepared. Could God actually want me to abandon all this? Did I have the energy for that? An encounter with one of my African-American coworkers, persuaded me that the answer was YES.
On Friday morning, one of my colleagues asked if we shouldn't consider redirecting the entire focus of the weekend services. In light of the recent events in our society, she wondered, maybe we should drill down on the biblical tradition of lament?
By Noon on Friday, I made the call to shift the focus of our services. A couple of members of our team began searching the Scriptures for what they had to say about the practice of lament. We eventually settled on the testimony of Ezekiel 9:4 and Psalm 13.
We opened up our services with a welcome that acknowledged the tragic, tumultuous, and confusing circumstances of the week.
We talked briefly about the biblical tradition of lament and explained that this would be our theme in worship today. To illustrate this, we read Psalm 13, changing the first person singular pronouns to third person plural.
We then invited the congregation into a time of silent prayer and reflection over what had happened this week, what we were each feeling about this, and what we wanted to express to God. In our contemporary services, this time was accompanied by soft acoustic guitar.
We sang a song/hymn, then led the church through a responsive prayer of lament—specifically naming the losses, issues, tensions, and range of feelings—each followed by the response: "Lord of Life, we lament this." We were careful to balance expressions of concern across the racial and political spectrum.
We sang some more.
I then gave the message ("God Hasn't Turned His Back"). In this sermon, I briefly set forth the cultural issue, the biblical theme of lament (Ezekiel 9:4), then walked the congregation through my own complicated processing of the events of the week. In this section, my goal was to make it easier for others to face their own inner life, struggles with racial issues, and both resistance to and need for conversation and connection with brothers and sisters across the racial divide. I closed the sermon with a vision of a "parousiatic" communion service, as depicted at the close of the film, Places In the Heart, and the call to be a people of confession, reconciliation, and grace.
I ended the sermon by inviting the congregation to pray with me the Lord's Prayer, moving slowly through it so we could absorb afresh the significance of each phrase.
We served Communion. At our contemporary services, the sacrament was co-officiated by a white and an African-American pastor.
We then invited an offering dedicated to the church's continuing mission in the world, sang some more, and concluded with a benediction.
We offered an opportunity for those who wanted to talk about their feelings or ask for personal prayer to come forward following the service.
Overall, the service seemed to resonate very powerfully and helpfully with the congregation. There were many tears. People lingered longer than usual afterwards. I was impressed at how many people seemed to seek out conversation with someone of another race.
Many people spoke of how grateful they were that our church had not just forged on as if nothing had happened or only given a nod to recent events in our congregational prayers. We had stopped to put the traumatic events of the week in theological perspective and taken steps to deepen our community around this. We'd made it clear that we cared about equipping people for conversation with others in these tumultuous times.
And to think we very nearly missed all this, because I was reluctant to abandon the work I'd already done. On the bright side, now I've got a sermon in the can for another week!
I have chosen to abandon the message I originally wrote for today in order to share my heart with you concerning the tragic events of this past week and the meaning of this table.
My text for today is Ezekiel 9:4, which reads: "Go throughout the city … and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it."
Some of what I want to share with you appeared in a post I made on Facebook on Friday. These thoughts, I hope, bear repeating, as they detail how I've struggled to come to terms with our times in light of the gospel message.
Heartbreak and helplessness
As I drove to work on Thursday, I listened on my car radio to the first-person, real-time account of the shooting death of Philando Castile in Minnesota the night before. As most of you have heard by now, this young African American man held a responsible job and was traveling with a mother and her four-year-old child. I could hear on the audio that he was respectful and appropriate to the police officer who had pulled him over for a broken taillight. He politely and clearly informed the officer that he had a permitted firearm in his car and was now reaching for his wallet. But the individual commissioned to "protect and serve" law-abiding citizens like Mr. Castile shot him four times. Philando Castile died at the scene. The killing bore similar marks to the shooting of a homeless man named Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge the day before.
I sat in the car, listening to the recording play a second time, and felt my heart ache.
We are all aware now that incidents like this are not unusual. While they have gotten heightened visibility in recent years, they have been going on for so many years and in so many places that they have left entire communities of people with mistrust, trauma, and wounds that are hard to heal. Friends of color, from city and suburb alike, speak of feeling afraid at the sight of a black and white vehicle behind them. Their families worry when they are out in a car and late in coming home—for reasons I never worry about concerning my loved ones.
It is also important to acknowledge that families of police officers fear for their loved ones' lives, too. The calculated killing of five officers in Dallas later on Thursday is every bit as heinous. Those officers are not the first ones to leave behind weeping families because they were simply trying to keep the peace. Every month, servants in blue have their lives brutally taken alongside some highway, on a city street, or as they answer a domestic disturbance. I believe that the vast majority of police officers in this country are worthy of honor as they struggle to face an increasingly dangerous world.
At the same time, I will confess that I have largely been blind or willfully ignorant about events like those that played out for Philando Castile or Alton Sterling. I have tended to rationalize these incidents thinking: Maybe he shouldn't have reached for his wallet? I have excused the errant or excessive acts of certain authorities because of all the pressure they are obviously under. I have pointed my finger at all the black-on-black crime out there—as if this somehow justified the murder of somebody's child or lessened the grief God must feel over the brokenness of his creation. There are all kinds of explanations for how I've often responded to such killings, but no real excuse. I know that because of what I feel inside of me when I imagine that this was my family in that car in Minnesota or my brother on that street in Baton Rouge.
As I turned off the radio and walked into my workplace on Thursday morning, my mind raced on to other concerns—a list of meetings and to do's, a variety of "first world worries"—until I met the tears of an African American co-worker. Why hadn't I immediately sought this person or others out when I entered the building? Was it because I was already hardening my heart to what had happened this week? Was it because I feared there would be a violent backlash (as did indeed happen) to confuse my feelings further? Did I unconsciously avoid going to my black neighbors because I felt helpless to say or do anything constructive? The answer is, probably, "yes."
It took my heartbroken sister coming to me to break this useless turning inward. She reminded me that none of us should be alone in our pain—that there is always one thing worth doing in the face of times like ours.
A grace larger than our sin
When confronted by the pain and wrongdoing of their societies, the biblical prophets admonished God's people that even if they didn't know how to repair all the problems, they could at least gather together to "lament over all the detestable things that are done" (Ezekiel 9:4). As we are seeking to do today, they could mourn with those who mourn. They could cry out for wisdom to the God who sees all. They could refuse to accept "the way it is" and never stop longing for the in-breaking of a better kingdom. They could pray and encourage others to pray for all the people caught up in the giant agony of our city and suburbs, still so much in need of a Savior.
I am sorry for my hard-heartedness and my crippling sense of helplessness. I regret that I have not done more to reach out to brothers and sisters who experience America today in a very different way than I do: whether black, blue, or something else. I lament today, and I join my heart to others who sorrow, and I want to work harder to build a better world.
For all of these reasons, I am grateful to come to this table, and I hope you are too. It is here that we are called to remember that God has not turned his back on this sinful and broken world. On the contrary, at the Cross, God entered into this world's writhing agony and took its weight upon himself. It is here that God has proclaimed the reality of a grace larger than our sin and a redeeming love that stretches out its hands toward even those who know not fully the evil they do or the good they are failing to do. There is no color at the foot of the Cross except for the color red, washing in the blood of Jesus all who humbly come to him.
The classic movie Places in the Heart tells the story of a bigoted and broken little town in the Old South. It's a town where blacks and whites are bitterly divided, where wanton killings occur and justice is denied. Even church is a reflection of the sad state of that community: utterly segregated. The so-called righteous are prejudiced or passive in the face of such obvious need of healing. People talk about Christ and love, but the love they show toward others is rarely Christlike. It's the same old awful news, day after day, until the final scene.
The camera takes you into the Caucasian church building you've seen before on what appears to be a normal Sunday. As the lens pans across the pews, however, you're surprised to see a young black man whom you know was barbarically lynched earlier in the story. He is now sitting there, alive, next to the sheriff he accidentally killed. The camera moves on as you see people whom you know went out of their way to exploit, condemn, or ignore the plight of those of a different color, but now they're humbly breaking bread and kindly passing the cup to one another.
As a lump rises in your throat, you understand that this communion service you are watching is not a normal one; it is the one toward which all the gatherings like this one have always been pointing. You are glimpsing the world as it should be, the world as it will be, the place where all the diabolical deeds and divisions—all the physical, spiritual, and social sickness of humanity—are finally healed, and we see one another as the precious brothers and sisters we are: all in need of God's grace and humbly sharing it.
Until that final day, the church of Jesus does this. We confess our personal sin and lament our corporate brokenness. We join our hands and lives around this table in daring defiance of all the forces of hate and selfishness that try to blind us to our kinship and break our grip on one another. We turn to the great God who is our hope and our salvation and whose grace is sufficient for all our needs. And we come to this table, saying, "Forgive us, Lord. Renew us, Lord. Use us, Lord, till thy will is finally and fully done on Earth as it is in heaven."
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.