06.28.2015 Preaching Text: “[Jesus] said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’” (Mark 5:34)
There’s an old expression that’s clever, not because it’s true necessarily, but because it sometimes is. “No good deed goes unpunished.” Now, as I say, we know this isn’t true and could cite numerous examples to prove it. Yet we must admit that on occasion it is quite true. Jesus, in fact, could be the poster child for just such situations.
Our passage from Mark this morning is part of an extended section of healings. These were undeniably good deeds. But we know not everybody appreciated them. In fact, a gathering storm of powerful opposition to Jesus’ ministry was growing, one that ultimately led to the Cross.
When the Three Wise Men came to Bethlehem to worship the newborn Messiah they offered three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold symbolized Jesus’ kingship, frankincense his priestly role, and myrrh his prefigured death (myrrh was a substance often used to anoint the dead for burial).
For many, then, Jesus’ good deeds bring welcome relief and announce the goodness of God. For others they are a threat to be crushed.
Over the last week-and-a-half we have grieved the loss of the faithful at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. We also have been stunned – and heartened – by the witness of the relatives of those victims who were gunned down as they gathered on a typical Wednesday evening for bible study and prayer.
The almost otherworldly forgiveness shown by their relatives has left us humbled by the power of their goodness, but, perhaps most profoundly, by the power of their extraordinary faith.
At a hearing for the shooter, Nadine Collier, whose mother, Ethel Lance, had been shot in cold blood, directed these words to the savage, unrepentant murderer, “You took something very precious from me, but I forgive you…You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you and I forgive you.”
Speaking later to a reporter, Alana Simmons, whose grandfather, the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., had also been killed, said, “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions…And that is what we want to get out to the world.”
In keeping with this sentiment, last Sunday, the first Sunday after the attack, the Rev. Norvel Goff, newly-appointed interim pastor of the church, spoke to a packed, multiracial congregation: “Lots of folks expected us to do something strange and break out in a riot,” he said. “Well, they just don’t know us.”
In the excited aftermath of this horrific slaughter, other less inspiring voices have come out of the woodwork seeking to stir things up. The response by the media, politicians, and professional activists betrays, at the very least, the profound moral confusion of our times, though perhaps more to the point, betrays an equally profound misunderstanding of Christianity.
The very day after Rev. Goff’s inspiring words, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece by a professor, Stacey Patton, from American University, entitled, “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists.”
She begins by quoting other relatives of the victims, such as the son of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, who three days after the shooting said, “We already forgive him for what he’s done, and there’s nothing but love from our side of the family.” His sister then added, “I just feel a lot of love. I’m a little bitter, but I’m overwhelmed with love.”
“Recognizing the agency in these words,” Professor Patton goes on to observe, “and the different ways people grieve, the parade of forgiveness is disconcerting to say the least (italics mine).”
According Patton, this penchant for forgiveness “has become a requirement” for black families. They’re “expected to grieve as a public spectacle, to offer comfort, redemption, and a pathway to a new day.”
After acknowledging that the “politics of forgiveness” in the black community has historically taken into account “divine justice and liberation in the next life” and that this formed the very basis of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent approach in the Civil Rights Movement, Patton ultimately frowns upon what, for her, is yet another form of oppression.
“Black people,” she writes, “are not allowed to express unbridled grief or rage, even under the most horrific circumstances.” Such expressions of forgiveness, she concludes, are merely a response to the demand to “protect whiteness, and America as a whole. This is yet another burden for black America.”
Michael Wear, however, who headed up President Obama’s faith outreach during the 2012 campaign, challenged this view in an article in Christianity Today, entitled, “Stop Explaining Away Black Forgiveness.”
“The ‘confounding forgiveness’ given voice at the bail hearing,” he writes, “the ‘radical love’ contained in the statements, was not cultural, sociological or political, it was theological. It was about Jesus Christ.”
“They did not forgive to express the values of their race or to represent the character of their country, but to be faithful to their God.” The survivors forgave “because they believe that fateful night in the upper room of Mother Emanuel was not the end of their loved ones’ stories.”
Rather, they believe the dead are “in the Kingdom of God, beloved by [God], their greatest longing realized.”
“What other American community today,” he asks finally, referring to the black community, “displays less shame, less reservation…about proclaiming the Christian faith?”
On the evening of the first Sunday after the shootings, following, that is, Rev. Goff testimonial of Christian goodness before his congregation, tens of thousands of South Carolinians, white and black, marched in unity across the Ravenal Bridge in Charleston.
This dignified and unified community defied not only the expectations of the shooter, who had hoped to start a race riot, but those of our cultural elites. This action revealed, instead, far more importantly, and far more eloquently, the salvific power of Christ’s merciful love.
For, as Jesus taught, in and through faith there is no better healing for the crippling disease of cynicism and hate. And that goes for any age. Amen.