2 Pentecost C—6/23/19
Pr. Scott Kramer
Who is Dylann Roof?
Some of us saw the film Emanuel this past Monday. Four years ago to the day, a young man named Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat through a Bible study before standing up and shooting nine members of the congregation dead.
What possesses a 21 year-old young white man who belonged to an ELCA Lutheran Church to commit such a horrific act against nine African-Americans, their families and congregation?
The language we use today might sound familiar to the people of Jesus’ day. “What possessed you to do such a thing?” is a question any one of us might ask, if we had the chance to meet Dylann Roof in person.
In today’s reading from Luke, a troubled man sat outside the city gates. He wore no clothing, he shouted, and when he was restrained, he would break the chains and continue as he had before. Here was a man that everyone knew was possessed by demons.
Closer to home, you no doubt heard about the vandalism that one of our sister churches experienced. United Christian Church of Renton had set up a display of brightly painted doors on their front lawn. On the doors was printed the words, “God’s Doors Open to All.” On Wednesday morning, these doors had been kicked in, and explosive devices were detonated.
On Friday, many Christians from many churches gathered at United Christian Church for a candlelight vigil, expressing our prayers and support for the courage and faith of that congregation’s members.
What possessed someone, or several people, to commit this act of hatred and violence?
It’s a natural question to ask. Most of us would probably not mention demons as a cause. For followers of Jesus, the main point of today’s reading is not the troubled man. The main point of the vandalism at United Christian Church is not the troubled individuals who damaged a lawn display. And in the movie Emanuel, four years after the fact, it is clear that Dylann Roof, who killed nine people, is not the point of the story.
The main story of the movie Emanuel is the story of forgiveness. Several families who had lost loved ones spoke directly to Dylann Roof and said, “We forgive you.” At the Renton vigil the focus of the service was not demonizing the perpetrators but saying clearly, “Our work is love—always love.” In fact, after the vandalism another door was added to their lawn display, which reads: “Love wins. Thank you, neighbors!”
The church shootings in Charleston and the church vandalism in Renton are two stories of Christian discipleship in action. In these two stories the focus is not on demonizing the criminals but practicing love. This is precisely what we find in today’s gospel reading.
Nobody in the city knew what to do with the troubled man, so they cast him out and locked him up. Sound familiar? Along comes Jesus, and notice, Jesus treats the man not as a nuisance to society but as a human being—a beloved child of God.
And, notice in the gospel reading that this approach doesn’t sit well with a society uncomfortable with homelessness, mental illness, crime—a society that treats those on the edge as problems to be solved rather than as opportunities to practice love. The people of the city asked Jesus to leave, just as we do today: “Don’t talk to me of love! Give me comfort. Punish the bad guys. Lock the troublemakers away so I can feel safe. Don’t talk to me of love. Jesus, you can leave us now!” And why? Because, Luke tells us, “they were seized with great fear.”
What did Jesus do in this story? It wasn’t magic. It was a lot harder than magic, actually! To set aside fear and practice love is the hardest work we do—impossible, in fact, without the power of the Holy Spirit.
Many people, even Christians, believe that love in risky circumstances is not “practical.” But our gospel story tells a different tale. All previous attempts to control the man had failed. The townsfolk would chain him up and he would promptly break free and go back to his destructive ways.
It’s the sort of thing we see in our prison system today. A Bureau of Justice study last year shows that, on the state level, five out of six Georgia prisoners released ended up re-offending and going back to jail within nine years of release. Nationwide, the figure is 68% repeat offense. Our nation has not only the world’s highest rate of incarceration but the highest rate of recidivism (repeat offense). Locking people up doesn’t cast out their demons. And demonizing those among us who seem “possessed” in the long run neither reduces crime nor does it make any of us less anxious or fearful.
What was Jesus’ approach? By simply being with the man and being the embodiment of God’s love, Jesus offered the man the gift of peace, the gift of acceptance—the gift no one else would give him: the gift of love.
There’s no guarantee of the outcome in today’s gospel, of course. We can’t “fix” other people or force them to change. But the Christian response to the Charleston shootings, and maybe our response this past week to church vandalism in Renton, show that only those who practice love, only those who practice forgiveness, have the possibility of overcoming fear and experiencing lasting peace.
Our Christian hope is in Jesus Christ. We the Church—the Body of Christ–may seem small and insignificant. But, we follow one who taught that, like the mustard seed, like yeast in a loaf, our small numbers—guided by the power of the Holy Spirit–can transform our neighborhoods, our nation, and our world through the practice of forgiveness…and the power of love.