God is with us: A response to South Carolina church shooting
On Sunday mornings we worship in sanctuaries. We celebrate the gift of marriage and the baptisms of our children in them. We seek out our church buildings in tragedy—to mourn the loss of a friend or to find comfort in the midst of literal and metaphorical storms of life. We build sanctuary spaces into hospitals and military chaplains create them in the field as places of respite amidst stresses and struggles.
The word sanctuary, derived from the Latin word for holy, sanctus, means "sacred space." We go to sanctuaries expecting to be in the presence of the holy, and have sensed the Holy Spirit’s presence thick in that place. We then leave knowing we have been in the very presence of God.
On Wednesday night, during a Bible study, a sacred space was violated. A white gunman filled with hate entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people “because they were black,” according to a Charleston police spokesperson.
The church is in shock. The community is devastated. Those of us hundreds or thousands of miles away feel the impact of lives senselessly taken while seeking to draw closer to God.
We can put ourselves in the room. We, too, have attended a Wednesday night Bible study, been in the church late for a meeting or walked out into a dark parking lot after choir rehearsal.
We like to think of our sanctuaries as safe spaces, separate from the violence of the world. These murders are a stark reminder this is not the case.
Violating sacred space
The Bible addresses this type of violence. As the gunman violated the sacred space of Emanuel AME Church, so too, the ancient empire of Babylon brought violence to the Temple nearly 600 years before the birth of Jesus. As the Babylonian army conquered the holy city of Jerusalem, they plundered the Temple and burned it to the ground.
The destruction devastated the people. They cried out in words we read in our Bibles:
Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion [another name for Jerusalem]…
our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil? (Psalm 137:1-4)
Because of all these things I’m crying. My eyes, my own eyes pour water
because a comforter who might encourage me is nowhere near. (Lamentations 1:16)
So, too, we cry at the violence thrust upon this congregation and wonder when we will be able to sing again. We pray for families, a congregation, and a community in grief. This doesn’t make any sense.
Despite our theological sophistication that tells us we ought to know better, the questions persist: Where was God when the shooter entered? Where is God now?
The answer is contained in the name of this African Methodist Episcopal church.
God is still with us
“Mother Emanuel,” as the members have historically referred to Emanuel AME Church, has known her share of pain. Through their building being burned under suspicion the pastor was leading a slave revolt in the 1820s, and during a time when black churches were outlawed, the congregation persevered. According to the church’s website, they “continued the tradition of the African church by worshipping underground until 1865 when it was formally reorganized, and the name Emanuel was adopted, meaning ‘God with us.’”
The congregation borrowed the name from Matthew’s Gospel, who borrowed it from the prophet Isaiah.
As Matthew wrote the story of Jesus’ birth, he reflected upon texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. There he found words given to the people of Israel and Judah during an anxious time some 200 years before the Babylonian captivity.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God offered a sign of his presence, a sign God brought to fullness in Jesus.
The prophet writes, "Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
Matthew 1:23 tells us parenthetically, “Emmanuel means ‘God with us.’”
When we wonder if God has abandoned us, if he has left us to suffer on our own, we remember the sign of a baby named Emanuel, “God with us.”
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus the Emmanuel called us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are not to retreat to the perceived safety of our sanctuaries like a lamp under a basket. Rather, we are to be “a city on top of a hill [that] can’t be hidden;” a lamp on a lampstand, letting our “light shine before people” (see Matthew 5:13-16).
God calls us out into the world to work toward a better day to come. We are to live into and labor toward that for which we pray when we recite the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
In our grief today, we remember Emanuel, God with us.
Our world is broken, but God is with us. The racism and violence on the other side of our church doors is all too real and sometimes, tragically, comes inside, but God is with us. God-loving people are harmed sometimes and even killed, and God is with us. We struggle to sing and our eyes pour water, yet God is with us still.
May the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the community of Charleston, South Carolina, and all of us return to our sanctuaries. May we know in our grief that God is with us. And may we commit to being beacons of the Kingdom of God in the midst of our broken world. Let it be so. Amen.