Do you ever get stuck on an image, a word, a moment in time, and continue to return to it – take it into prayer, reflection, and consideration? Sometimes it is a haunting thought – why didn’t I understand, why didn’t I say something, why couldn’t I have helped. Sometimes it is a instinct to find deeper understanding. It can be lots of things. I find that I return to the events of June 17th when good, grace-filled people died at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. It was an evening when grace and welcome abounded. Imagine being there at the Bible Study when someone, who looked completely different from you – perhaps triggering their instincts of danger – walks in and joins the study of God’s word. It would have been one thing for Dylan Roof to walk in guns blazing and be done with the terrible deed – but he was welcomed without condition or reservation, sat down, received their peace, and then an hour later unleashed his misguided hate, taking nine lives.
“God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being….But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world…”
That young man entered a world of life and grace where people, compelled by the love of Christ, open their arms to him despite their misgivings. And because of their faith, they gave witness to the love of Christ to that young man, just as they had given witness as a community for the 199 years that came before. It was the witness given in the Book of Wisdom: “and the creatures of the world are wholesome, … for justice is undying.” It was a hallmark of that church to stand for the goodness of people, that justice is deserved for all, and that God’s love is all powerful, and his grace amazing.
It was such witness that brought death to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL in 1963 when another hate-filled soul by the envy of the devil brought death in to the world. Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair, all young girls, died that morning long ago – unintended victims perhaps, but witnesses nonetheless. It is the same witness that brought death to Clementa C. Pinckney – the church pastor and a South Carolina state senator; Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd; Ethel Lee Lance; Depayne Middleton; Tywanza Sanders; Daniel Simmons; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; Myra Thompson; and Susie Jackson.
Two millennia later we know the name of the synagogue official, Jairus – even while we do not know and have never known the name of the woman with the hemorrhage. Yet we remember her as a woman of deep, abiding faith. We remember her witness. The one to whom Jesus said: “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.” She is called “daughter” a word that simply and wonderfully conveys, you are part of my family – the family of God – formed, fashioned, given life, and loved by God. We do not know her name, but we know that she is “daughter” and thus a sister to us.
In time, we here, far removed from Charleston and Emanuel AME will not be able to recall their names. But how will we name them? How we call them as we remember their witness of welcoming the stranger who brought death? We will call them martyrs because of their martyria, their witness. But they are more, they are daughters and sons of God. They are our brothers and sisters.
So too are all the people who walk through our doors. The people who, if we are honest, seem out of place – disheveled, unfocused, odd, unkempt – who engender in us the instinct to step aside, look down, move away, and hope they sit somewhere else. How will we name them, those without names, often without homes, and unsure of what the night will bring? The love of God compels us to name them brothers and sisters.
I am haunted by the imagine of Emanuel AME welcoming that young man – haunted because, I believe their instincts for life told them danger has passed over the threshold of the church door into their lives. And they welcomed him as brother. It was truly a moment of amazing grace.
The grace Jesus brought as He came to save all people, as He invited all to be a part of God’s family. If we are to be a faithful, Eucharistic community, we are compelled by the love and grace of God to be welcoming to anyone who would seek to follow Jesus as his disciple. This welcome is extended to everyone: married couples with children, unwed mothers and fathers, the single unmarried, men and women with same-sex attraction, individuals facing gender issues, those whose marriages have broken down and suffered the trauma of divorce, people with special needs, immigrants, children born and unborn, the young, seniors, and the terminally ill, sinners and saints alike. That is the call of the grace given to us. It is at the deepest core of the Eucharist we will celebrate.
Do we always welcome unreservedly and well? No. Are we rightly called hypocrites in those moments? Yes. Yet, we will keep working on it with the grace of God. In the meantime we hypocrites will keep the doors open. There is always room for one more.
In time our names may fade from memory of the generations to come. But may our witness be remembered, that we strove, however imperfectly, to welcome and to treat all people with respect, compassion, and love. If that is our legacy, it will be because of grace; an Amazing Grace.