Five years ago on Sunday June 21st, Pastor Chris Nelson climbed into the pulpit and he began his sermon this way.
This is one of those days that Karl Barth, the famous 20th century theologian, said we need to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I suppose if he said it today, he would include tablets and other electronic devices…
I’m talking about the atrocity in Charleston, South Carolina that happened last week. Nine brothers and sisters murdered while they were at a prayer meeting at the Emmanuel AME Church, by a stranger, whose name I will not say now, (but who grew up in an ELCA church), and whom they welcomed in the name of Jesus. Hear their names; their lives matter — black lives matter:
Pastor Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Pastor Myra Thompson
Ethel Lee Lance
Pastor Daniel Simmons
Pastor Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Pastor Clementa Pinckney
I can’t be certain. But I believe it was the first time that phrase, black lives matter, was spoken in this pulpit.
I remember that following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, Chris and I would wrestle with how the church should speak about these public examples of violence against black people. But with the slaughter of nine faithful people at their weekly bible study by a person who grew up in one of our churches, Chris knew he had to say something.
Tonight, this very evening June 17th, at 9:05 pm, so about 45 minutes from now, nine faithful people were killed in cold blood by a young man that had been welcomed into Mother Emanuel AME Church. These nine faithful people were murdered by someone they welcomed into their church and their study of scripture and their time of prayer.
Five years ago already. In many ways it seems like a lifetime ago. So much has happened in our world since then. So much has happened in our community since then. So much has happened in our church since then. It’s hard to believe it’s been five years. But in many ways very little is different.
We still have to say something. Because the violence continues. The injustice continues. The racial disparities in our city and our state and our nation continue. We still need to say that black lives matter. We still need to remind ourselves that the Emanuel 9, that Pastor Sharonda, Tywanza, Cynthia, Pastor Myra, Ethel, Pastor Daniel, Pastor Depayne, Susie and Pastor Clementa are a part of our story. They are a part of God’s story.
If you’ve been keeping score at home this week, you’ll know that I was supposed to read the first few verses from a different chapter 5 in the bible, but I made a late-in-the-game audible, and decided to fasten our attention on Deuteronomy as opposed to Romans.
I love this part of Deuteronomy. It’s this gorgeous window into how all of us are pulled into the life giving relationship with God and then put to work. Let me explain.
So God’s people are about to enter into the promised land. After wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, after being delivered from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians, God’s people are standing on the door step of home. And Moses takes a moment to remind them of God’s commandments, the 10 Commandments, so he goes through them again in the verses following what I read earlier. But before he does that Moses says listen up:
Israel! Listen to the regulations and the case laws that I’m recounting in your hearing right now. Learn them and carefully do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Sinai. The Lord didn’t make this covenant with our ancestors but with us — all of us who are here and alive right now.
On face value this is wrong. These aren’t the people with whom God made the covenant. These are the children of the people with whom God made the covenant at Mt. Sinai. Their parents died in the wilderness. This is the second generation, but God doesn’t see it that way.
Moses says it’s us. We are the ones. The Hebrew here is pretty stark. Moses says, the Lord didn’t make this covenant with our ancestors, but with us, we, these, here, today, all of us, the living!
God’s saving activity, God’s liberating work didn’t just happen then, it’s happening now, right here for the living. For all of us today.
This is God’s story. This is God’s promise. You are, right now, right here, in this moment brought into God’s covenantal relationship with the whole world. You have been set free. This is what Jesus’ life and death and resurrection was all about.
Being set free from all the things that hold you captive. All the things that hold you in bondage. All the things that you can’t even see or appreciate until one day your eyes are opened and you realize you’ve been a part of a story that’s not God’s story. You’ve been in the wilderness. And you hear Moses’ words that God’s promises are for you, for us, we, these here today all of us, the living.
You are free. So what’s next?
As I said, it’s no accident that these words come on the doorstep of the promised land. It’s no accident that Moses reminds the people of their freedom before they begin to exercise it. God’s people are freed for a purpose, they’re freed for a particular kind of life. They’re freed to love and serve and seek the welfare of their neighbor.
And so are we.
In the past day or two I’ve seen a remix of the 10 Commandments shared on social media. I don’t know if Mark Zuckerberg heard me thinking about preaching on this text and worked it into his algorithm but there it was. They read like this:
- Practice loyalty to the Sacred.
- Do not forget that any given image of God is only a glimpse.
- Do not use God’s name to do harm.
- Do not let life be defined by productivity.
- Care for those who have cared for you.
- Do not be destructive.
- Be faithful to the commitment you make.
- Do not take what does not belong to you.
- Do not hinder justice from coming to fruition.
- Do not let your internal desires lead you to harm another.
They’re not a perfect update. But it’s a helpful reminder of what the life of freedom looks like and a future that is always drawing nearer.
Far too often we imagine God’s commandments to be given to individuals, but it’s a communal exercise. In God’s economy, my life and wellbeing is deeply connected to your well being, to my neighbors wellbeing, to the world’s wellbeing. God is not a God of isolationism, but a God of global communion. The problems that are confronting us today are terrible and sadly they’re not new.
But God has come among us, we, these, here, today, all of us, the living. That promise comes to us anew each day. That gives me hope and courage to meet today’s challenges and those that will confront us tomorrow. We do it together, all of us, the living. Amen.